26 January 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate on the detention of Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran

James Cleverly, as Minister for Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Adjournment Debate on the detention of Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to her for her unwavering efforts on behalf of her constituent.

Let me start by offering my deepest sympathies to the family of Mr Ashoori. They have endured this terrible ordeal for many years, as the hon. Lady has said. In August 2017, when Mr Ashoori was visiting family, he was detained by the Iranian authorities and sentenced to 10 years in prison under what the Iranian authorities called national security charges. Despite his appeal, Mr Ashoori’s sentence was upheld in July 2019. His family first made contact with officials from what at the time was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 19 June 2018, requesting consular assistance for Mr Ashoori. Since then, the UK Government have been in regular contact with the family. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the family on four occasions, most recently on 27 October. In these meetings he has reiterated the Government’s continued commitment to reuniting Mr Ashoori with his family here in the UK. We continue to work flat out to secure Mr Ashoori’s full and permanent release, as we do with all detained dual British nationals, regardless of how extensively each case has been covered in this House or in the media.

The House will be all too aware that the Iranian Government do not recognise dual nationality and therefore refuse to identify Mr Ashoori as being British. In practice, that means that they will not permit consular officials from the British embassy to visit Mr Ashoori or other dual British national detainees. That creates severe challenges for the UK Government in providing consular support to the detained dual British nationals. Consular officials are unable to visit Mr Ashoori in prison without the express permission of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which to date it has never granted.

Despite those challenges, officials in our embassy in Tehran consistently press for access to Mr Ashoori and call on Iran to allow him to receive urgent medical furlough. The Government continue to raise Mr Ashoori’s case at the most senior levels, and we discuss his situation at every opportunity with our Iranian counterparts. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary engages with Foreign Minister Zarif regularly and always raises Mr Ashoori and our other dual British national detainees. Our ambassador in Tehran continually raises the cases of all dual British national detainees, including Mr Ashoori, with the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He last did so on 6 January this year with the deputy Foreign Minister.

Our intention is always to act in a way that we judge most likely to be in the best interests of dual British nationals who are detainees in Iran. We remain committed to doing all we can to ensure that they are released and allow them to return home to be reunited with their families. In the meantime, we have repeatedly pressed, and will continue to press, for consular access and appropriate medical care, including furlough, in advance of their full release.

On our consular support to the family of Mr Ashoori, the Government have relentlessly lobbied for Mr Ashoori’s full and permanent release. Since the family requested assistance from my Department, officials have provided consular support to the Ashoori family and are available to be contacted 24 hours a day. Officials provide regular updates on our lobbying efforts to the family and meet them to discuss their ongoing concerns. The most recent meeting of our officials with the family was on 20 January.

Mr Ashoori’s pressing health and welfare concerns are raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and our ambassador in Tehran at every opportunity with their Iranian counterparts, along with the UK’s serious concerns about Iran’s practice of detaining foreign and dual British nationals. The UK Government continue to make robust diplomatic representations on behalf of the dual British nationals detained in Iran who have requested our assistance, including Mr Ashoori, and we have repeatedly expressed our concern about Mr Ashoori’s appalling treatment. Our consular services are the FCDO’s most important public service. Ministers and officials work tirelessly and tenaciously to support individuals and their families. We always act in a way we believe to be in their best interests. But we are not complacent. We will continue to keep under review what actions we might take that are most likely to ensure that Mr Ashoori is allowed to return home to the UK.

The Government have been consistently clear that we want to put the relationship between the UK and Iran on a better footing. We believe that maintaining diplomatic relationships will help achieve our vision of a non-nuclear-armed Iran, an Iran that acts as a responsible regional power, and an Iran that does not pose a threat to the UK and UK interests. We continue to assess that it is also the best way of securing the release of dual British nationals currently in detention. The Government will work with all international partners, including the new US Administration, to deliver those shared goals. The UK will keep a diplomatic door open for discussions across a full range of UK interests. We will also continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights records.

From the Prime Minister down, the Government are clear that we do not accept dual British nationals being used as diplomatic leverage, and that it is essential that they are released. I will not make excuses for those in the Iranian Government responsible for the ongoing detention of British dual nationals. It is unacceptable and it must end. But it is the Iranian Government’s actions that we should be focused on. It is their choice to detain such people, and it is totally in their gift to release them. We should all be relentlessly focused on their behaviour and the decisions that they have made. This Government have consistently made clear to the Iranians our concerns at their persistent violations of human rights. We will keep up the pressure, along with the co-operation of our international friends and allies.

In the past six months, we have summoned the Iranian ambassador to hand over a letter from the UK, French and German Foreign Ministers and co-signed, a joint statement at the Human Rights Council expressing serious concerns over Iran’s behaviour. We have also reiterated calls for all states to uphold their human rights obligations. We will continue to call out those violations for as long as Iran commits them.

Let me end by once again expressing my deepest sympathies for Mr Ashoori and his family whilst he remains detained, as well as for all the others that remain detained at the hands of the Iranian Government. I can assure the House that this Government remain committed to doing whatever we can to secure the release of all of them, and will continue to make representations at every level, at every opportunity, on their behalf.