James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Urgent Question on Iran’s decision to sentence Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on further charges.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Iran’s decision to sentence Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on further charges is totally inhumane and wholly unjustified. This Government remain committed to doing all that we can to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return home to the United Kingdom so that she can be reunited with her daughter, Gabriella, and her husband, Richard. It is indefensible and unacceptable that Iran has chosen to continue this wholly arbitrary court case against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The Iranian Government have deliberately put her through a cruel and inhumane ordeal. We continue to call on Iran in the strongest possible terms to end her suffering and allow her to return home.
Since her arrest in April 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has faced terrible hardship and appalling treatment. This Government have relentlessly lobbied for an improvement to both the conditions endured by Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe while she was in prison and those conditions still experienced by others, including Morad Tahbaz and Anoosheh Ashoori, who are still incarcerated. Although Iran does not recognise dual nationality, and therefore views Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe as only an Iranian citizen, that has not stopped this Government from lobbying at every opportunity for their release, and her return home to the UK. We have never been granted sight of the judicial process, or consular access to our dual British nationals detained in Iran; however, that has not stopped our ambassador in Tehran consistently pressing for her full and permanent release with senior Iranian interlocutors, most recently today, 27 April.
Since I was last at the Dispatch Box, the Foreign Secretary and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have been in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. Our ambassador in Tehran has visited Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe at her parents’ home in Tehran to reiterate the Government’s commitment to do all that we can to secure her return to the UK. The Foreign Secretary has spoken with both Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband to underline the fact that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything that we can to achieve that.
Since Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest in 2016, we have raised the case regularly at the highest levels of Government. The Prime Minister has raised it with President Rouhani, most recently on 10 March, and the Foreign Secretary’s personal ongoing engagement with Foreign Minister Zarif continues, with their most recent call being on 3 April. That lobbying of Iranian interlocutors at every opportunity has helped to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in March 2020 and the removal of her ankle tag on 7 March this year.
As I have said, however, what we ultimately seek to achieve, and what we are ultimately working towards, is the release of all British dual nationals held in arbitrary detention in Iran, and their ability to return home. The UK continues to take concrete steps to hold Iran to account for its poor human rights record. At the Human Rights Council in March 2021, we strongly supported the renewal mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, and we made clear to Iran that its repeated violations of human rights, including those of foreign and dual nationals, are completely unacceptable. The UK Government also joined the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention on 15 February. We continue to work with G7 partners to enhance mechanisms to uphold international law, tackle human rights abuses and stand up for our shared values.
I assure the House that the safety and the treatment of dual British national detainees in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. Iran is the one responsible for putting Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe through this cruel and inhumane ordeal over the last five years, and it remains on them to release her to be reunited with her family, and to release the others. We continue to stress that these second charges are baseless. She must not be returned to prison.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. The whole House will be aware that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, my constituent, has been in prison in Iran for five years now; from last March, she has been under house arrest. The Iranian authorities dangled the possibility of freedom in front of her by removing her ankle tag, but then, yesterday, announced that she had one more year in prison and another year of a travel ban—effectively, a two-year sentence.
As the news unfolded yesterday, I watched with great interest as the Prime Minister talked about redoubling his efforts to get Nazanin home and how he was working as hard as he possibly could to secure her release. If the Prime Minister is watching now, I would like to ask him what efforts he has put into trying to release Nazanin in the first place, because from where I am standing I have seen no evidence on the part of the Prime Minister so far.
At the heart of this tragic case is the Prime Minister’s dismal failure to release my constituent and to stand up for her, and his devastating blunder in 2017, as Foreign Secretary, when he exposed his complete ignorance of this tragic case and put more harm in Nazanin’s way. The Prime Minister did not even arrange for UK officials to attend Nazanin’s recent court hearing, which might have ensured that she got a free and fair trial. He still has not got his Government to pay the £400 million debt that we as a country owe Iran. We MPs might be many things, but we are not naive. We cannot deny the fact that Nazanin was handed a fresh new sentence a week after the International Military Services debt court hearing was delayed. Bearing that in mind, I have a few questions to ask the Minister. I would really appreciate some proper answers from him.
Will he acknowledge that Nazanin is being held hostage by Iran and is a victim of torture? In light of the recent adjournment of the IMS debt hearing scheduled for last week, what are the Government doing to ensure the debt is paid promptly? The Prime Minister said yesterday that he was working with our American friends on this issue. Can the Minister please explain what that involves and why the US has had more success in securing the release of dual nationals than we have? Tomorrow, another British-Iranian dual national, Mehran Raoof, is on trial in Iran. What link does the Minister see between development in that and Nazanin’s case and upcoming talks on the Iran nuclear deal?
The Prime Minister and other Ministers might not listen to me, but perhaps they will listen to someone from their own Benches. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said today that Nazanin is being held hostage by Iran. Please, Minister—please, everyone on the Government Benches—get Nazanin released, stand up to Iran and bring my constituent home.
I completely understand the passion with which the hon. Lady speaks and I can hear the anger and frustration in her voice. However, her anger and frustration are misdirected, because Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual nationals held in arbitrary detention are being held by Iran—it is on them. The situation with regard to the charges that have recently been brought against other British dual nationals, and indeed the sentence that has been handed down for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is because of Iran, and it should be towards Iran that we direct our attention.
With regard to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s treatment, our priority has always been her full release and her ability to return home to the UK. The UK does not and will never accept our dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. We recognise that her treatment has been completely unacceptable. It is totally inhumane and wholly unjustified, and we call upon Iran to allow Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to return home to the UK and to release from detention all British dual nationals that are being held.
The hon. Lady speaks about international co-operation. Of course we co-operate with our international partners on a whole range of issues with regard to Iran, including the United States of America and the E3, and, as I have already said, we are working with Canada on the work that it is doing on the initiative against arbitrary detention. We will continue to focus our efforts on getting Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe home to the UK and the other dual nationals in detention fully released.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to the request from the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for an urgent question. It is absolutely essential that we keep a focus on this cruel and inhumane treatment of a mother being held captive as a hostage and a pawn in order to get ransom money out of others and to extract diplomatic leverage. Let us keep that focus where it really belongs: on the brutal, tyrannical regime in Tehran that treats its own people as hostages and pawns. As we focus on that, can we please focus on why the regime is doing that? It is doing it for personal profit, to sow violence in the region, and in order to mask its crimes. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what sanctions are going to be brought against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has so profited from this violent regime, and, now that corruption is permitted as a reason to use the Magnitsky sanctions, how that is going to be used to ensure that the regime’s pockets are emptied and not filled.
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to say that the blame lies with the Iranian regime—not even with the Iranian people but with the Iranian regime. He will understand that I am not willing to discuss sanctions designations for fear that that might be prejudicial to any future success. We do, of course, recognise that Iran’s behaviour is unacceptable in a number of ways, not just on the detention of British dual nationals, but with regard to its international and regional actions, and we call on Iran to step away from the dangerous and self-destructive route that it has taken and to rejoin the international community and be a regional partner that behaves in accordance with international rules and norms.
After having completed a five-year sentence, for Nazanin to be given a further one-year sentence and a travel ban is truly appalling. Let us be clear: Nazanin was put on trial on a trumped-up charge of promoting “propaganda against the system” and found guilty after a sham trial. Sadly, we are seeing a sustained failure of British diplomacy. Now the Government must demand Nazanin’s immediate and unconditional release in the strongest possible terms, so that she can return to Britain and be with her family. As the UN special rapporteur has said, it is totally unacceptable that Iran is imprisoning UK nationals, Nazanin and others, in an attempt to exert diplomatic leverage. Let us not forget that other British nationals are also being unfairly imprisoned in Iran. Anoosheh Ashoori has been held for three and a half years and says that the UK Government are not doing enough to secure his release. My question to the Minister is this: clearly the Government’s approach to date has not worked, so what are they now doing to secure the release of Nazanin and the others so that they can all come home?
The Government work on behalf of all the British dual nationals, whether they be held in detention, open prison or elsewhere, and indeed of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe so that she can come home. The UK has had some positive impact. For example, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release on furlough and the removal of her ankle tag were in response to lobbying by this Government. We want to do more. We want to ensure that the people who are held in detention are released and are all able to return home to their families. We will continue to work hard at every level of Government to ensure that that happens.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this urgent question and on ensuring that the family of Nazanin and the imprisonment of Nazanin herself are at the forefront of our minds in this House. Iran has a dreadful human rights record, with the largest number of executions anywhere in the world and the oppression of its native people. Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic then that the United Nations Economic and Social Council elected Iran for a full four-year term to the Commission on the Status of Women? Will he therefore take that up at the United Nations to say that it is totally unacceptable for a country that suppresses women and imprisons them without proper process even to be considered to represent human rights across the world?
The UK Government take the rights of women very seriously, and, indeed, one of the priorities as set out for our official development assistance expenditure is girls’ education. The election of countries to various roles in the United Nations is ultimately a decision for that multilateral forum, but I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised about Iran’s treatment of women. We call upon Iran to do the right thing, and we will continue to lobby for the release and return of British dual nationals and also on a whole range of other issues where we believe that Iran’s behaviour is unacceptable.
Let us go to the SNP spokesperson, Chris Law.
The SNP’s condemnation of the Iranian Government for the painfully outrageous detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is unequivocal. Iran has never followed the rule of law in Nazanin’s case and she has never received a fair trial. Its cruelty, it seems, is boundless. The precise nature of the charges and evidence in the second case remain unclear and indistinct from the first case. What confirmation have the UK Government sought on the detail of these charges and whether Nazanin will be returned to prison, or put under house arrest, as a result of this new sentence? Furthermore, it is easy to forget that Nazanin’s case is yet another matter that the Prime Minister has blundered into and made much worse with his grossly incompetent mishandling while Foreign Secretary. He cannot continue to wash his hands of this case. Will the Prime Minister be making an apology on record to Nazanin and her family, and will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office now do all that it can with the utmost urgency to undo the damage that the Prime Minister has done to secure Nazanin’s release?
What we have seen in recent days is the completely arbitrary nature of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and of other British dual nationals in Iran. This is the action of the Iranian regime and we should not let them off the hook by attempting to divert attention elsewhere. It is down to the Iranian regime. We will continue to work to secure the release of those incarcerated and the return home of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We are seeking detail, because the detail was quite sparse initially, on what exactly this means and we will be lobbying in the first instance to say that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not returned to prison. We will continue to push for her return home to the UK and for the full and permanent release of the others who are detained.
Iran has proudly announced that it is now enriching uranium to 60% purity, a move that puts the country perilously near the threshold for weapons-grade uranium. Given this latest provocative nuclear action, Tehran’s ongoing support for terror proxies and its detention of British citizens, including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, does the Minister share my view that it would be dangerous to ease sanctions on Iran?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about Iran’s broader destabilising actions. I will not speculate as to future decisions about sanctions, for the reason that I gave to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but we are very conscious that Iran’s behaviour on a number of fronts is unacceptable. It should return to compliance with the JCPOA, and that is what we are calling on it to do.
Liberal Democrats join colleagues across the House in their condemnation of the Iranian regime’s actions. Our hearts have to go out to Richard, Gabriella and the whole family. This must feel like one step forward, two steps back. I sincerely hope that the Government are considering Magnitsky sanctions, which are surely the next step.
I am concerned about Nazanin’s current state. Redress says that Nazanin
“has already suffered severe physical and psychological impacts from the torture and ill-treatment”
and that if she is subjected to more, it could cause “irreparable damage” to her. What immediate attention have our Government directed to the Iranian regime to ensure that Nazanin’s medical needs are met in full?
We are very conscious of the health of all those detained, particularly in the light of the covid situation. We lobby the Iranian Government hard and regularly to ensure that British dual nationals held in detention have adequate medical treatment, and we will continue to push for the thing that we are all ultimately trying to achieve, which is their full release and their ability to return to the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this question and for her tenacious campaigning for Nazanin. I also thank the Minister for mentioning Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz, the other dual nationals, because they, too, have families who are desperately upset by the incarceration of their loved ones.
What will the consequences be for Iran of this hostage diplomacy, other than words? We know that it does not fundamentally care what we think or say, and it has to know that there will be consequences. We have to do our part by settling the IMS issue, which, however unjustified, is being linked to Nazanin’s incarceration, and that is taking a very long time. Ultimately, what will the consequences be for Iran of continuing with hostage diplomacy? Otherwise, it is all bark and no bite.
I thank my right hon. Friend for reinforcing the point that, as well as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, there are other British dual nationals incarcerated. The UK Government work tirelessly to secure the release of all those people. Some of them are household names and others are less well known, but we work on behalf of all of them. I assure him that we will continue to lobby to try to secure the release of them all and that we will investigate the full range of options, but, as I said, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box as to what those might be.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her tireless work on behalf of her constituent and other dual nationals held in Iran. It is disgraceful that they are still held. It is disgraceful that Nazanin has had another sentence imposed on her, and she ought to be released. In the many negotiations that are no doubt taking place with the Iranian Government, what other issues are raised by Iran? Is the issue of financial dealings between Britain and Iran in the past raised? What other discussions does the Minister propose to have with Iran in order to secure the early release of all the dual nationals?
The UK does not and will never accept dual nationals being used for political leverage, so I am not going to amplify whatever claims the Iranian regime have made about them. Our message and the message that I hope the right hon. Gentleman and every other Member of the House would echo is that the Iranian regime must release our people.
As my right hon. Friend will know, in 2019, the Foreign Secretary visited Iran, where he raised the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe with Foreign Minister Zarif. Since then, what other discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Minister to try to resolve this and is any progress being made in each of these communications?
As I have said, we engage regularly at the most senior levels with the Iranian Government. We had diplomatic engagement to secure Nazanin’s initial furlough and the removal of the ankle tag. Our ambassador visited Nazanin at her home last week. We raise the case regularly; the Prime Minister raised it in his recent call with President Rouhani and the Foreign Secretary did so in his call to Foreign Minister Zarif. The British ambassador to Tehran has formally protested Nazanin’s continued confinement. We will raise this on every occasion where we have an opportunity to speak with the Iranian regime. We will continue to push this until all our British dual nationals are released and allowed to return home.
Last year, Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe said he feared that, if she was not home for Christmas, there is
“every chance this could run for years.”
Was he right, Minister?
I sincerely hope that he is not right. We will continue to work to bring Nazanin home and for the release of all British dual nationals. Their incarceration is unacceptable, unjustified and arbitrary, and it must stop.
We are strongest when we work together with our international partners. I understand that several western countries have citizens who are dual nationals and suffering a similar dreadful fate to Nazanin. Will my right hon. Friend update the House as to what discussions he has had with our western allies about how we can work together for the release of our citizens?
I thank my hon. Friend for the points she raises about the international nature of this situation. Of course, we work closely with our international partners —as I have said, with the E3 and the United States of America—in particular with regard to our policy towards Iran. We will work with any and all international friends and partners to bring pressure to bear for the release of their and our dual nationals in detention. The challenge is that Iran does not recognise dual national status and therefore denies us a number of the consular access opportunities we would normally have. We will continue to work to secure the release of our British nationals in Iran.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her urgent question, and all that she does to champion Nazanin’s case and get her home to her family. It is a shame that the Foreign Secretary is not here today to answer the questions himself. In Newport West, the case is personal because Richard Ratcliffe’s sister is a constituent of mine, so I was determined to speak today. The United Nations has previously ruled that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment is unlawful and ordered Iran to release her, so what are this Government doing to work through the international community to put pressure on Iran to follow their international obligations?
As I said in response to the previous question, we work with and will continue to work with our international friends and partners on a range of issues with regard to Iran and its destabilising behaviour, both globally and in the region.
Is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government—or, indeed, of any previous Government—that we do, or do not owe any money to Iran?
The legal situation with the IMS debt has been settled. It is a multi-decade-long problem, and we are investigating ways by which this can be resolved.
My constituent Sarah McCullough is one of many who have been in touch over the years to express their concerns and solidarity with Nazanin and her family. Nazanin’s continued detention is a mark of failure of this Government, this Minister and his predecessors. What confidence can British citizens have in the ability of this UK Government to protect them abroad?
The situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual nationals held in detention is the fault of the Iranian regime. We must never lose sight of that. It has the power to release them, it should release them, and we regularly call on it to do so and allow them to return to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom gives travel advice to help to inform British travellers when they go overseas, and we have an extensive network to give support to British travellers. We absolutely do everything we can to protect our British nationals when they are overseas and when they find themselves in a situation such as the British dual nationals in Iran have found themselves in. We work tirelessly in all respects, in all cases, to support them.
I know that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) looks forward to the day she does not have to bring this case to the House, and we are with her on that. Nazanin has an extra year in prison and another year of not being able to be at home with her family. As the Minister says, this is both inhumane and unjustified, and it is squarely at the feet of the Iranian regime. Was he as surprised as I was when the United Nations, in its wisdom, elected Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women? That shows a couple of things, not just about the United Nations but also the fact that Iran wants to have credibility on the international stage. So will the Minister impress on the United Nations that one way for Iran to hold its position is to allow Nazanin and other dual nationals home?
My hon. Friend—my dear hon. Friend—makes an incredibly important point. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and to speak with authority on the international stage, it must change its behaviours on a whole range of issues, but most notably with regard to the release of the British dual nationals held in incarceration and their ability to return home to the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister for his update. We all share the same frustration and that goes without saying. To say that the situation is distressing is a gross understatement. While I understand the issues highlighted, it is my opinion that something must be done to reunite this mother with her child, husband and family. Is there nothing that can legally be done by the UK Government in conjunction with other Governments, such as those of the USA and the EU, and with the UN to stop the persecution of this British citizen and the desecration of this British family?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this whole House shares the frustration at the situation that these people find themselves in, through no fault of their own. We will, as I say, continue to work with international partners on a whole range of issues with regard to Iran. We will continue to lobby Iran to change its behaviours and to come back into the international fold. One of the most high-profile and perhaps one of the easiest things that it could do is to release these people and allow them to return home.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s decision to grant Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection to help her to resolve her case. This is the first time that this tool has been used in recent memory. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what further steps the UK is taking to help to secure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point about the granting of diplomatic status. That sends a signal to Iran of how seriously we take the issue of our British dual nationals. This Government remain committed to doing everything we can to secure the full, permanent release of all dual nationals, including the return home of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We constantly review what further steps we might take—as I said, that is not something I am willing to speculate about at the Dispatch Box—to secure the release of all our British dual nationals and allow them to return home.
Like many other Brits abroad, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been completely let down by this Government through a litany of errors, including the Prime Minister’s gaffe. Nazanin and her family will doubtless be experiencing serious mental health pressures and anguish at this point in time. Indeed, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has previously stated that the Government’s inability to secure his wife’s return is a “failure of diplomacy”. Would not the Minister agree that this further sentence proves that he is right?
Sadly, what this sentence proves is that Iran is willing to do anything to attempt to apply diplomatic leverage, using British dual nationals as the tool. We will never accept that. We will continue to lobby for the release of all the British dual nationals. As I say, the fault sits wholly, squarely with Iran.
I join colleagues from across this House in our condemnation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s further imprisonment. Could I press my right hon. Friend a little further on Iran’s election to the Commission on the Status of Women? This is not just an empty title; it confers status and suggests a commitment to gender equality that Iran does not have. Could we not use our position on the UN Security Council, in conjunction with allies, to consider our own participation with the commission for as long as Iran remains a member?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The various functions within the United Nations are separate from each other. However, she does raise a broader point about the treatment and status of women in Iran. This is something we take incredibly seriously. We will continue to lobby for improvements for the status of women, both in Iran and globally, as part of our force for good agenda.
The news that Nazanin will be forced to spend another two years in Iran, far from her family, is completely devastating. Anousheh Ashoori, who is also being held in Tehran in prison as a hostage, is dearly missed by his family in my constituency of Lewisham East. Over the past few days, his family have been concerned that he is showing severe signs of coronavirus. What urgent action will the Foreign Secretary take this week to ensure Anousheh gets the medical furlough he desperately needs?
I thank the hon. Lady for the point that she has raised and the work that I know she has done in support of her constituent. We are aware—we have been in contact, and we are aware—of the concerns about the medical situation in the prison, and we have pushed the Iranian regime to allow access of medical professionals for, as I say, Mr Ashoori. We will continue to push for the better treatment of our British joint nationals while they are incarcerated, but ultimately for their release and ability to return home.