Jeremy Hunt, possible future Conservative prime minister (a very crowded field) and man whose immediate purpose in life seems to be repairing much of the damage done by his predecessor to the UK’s reputation abroad, arrives in Tehran with a clear message, delivered in plain language. Iran, he says, must not use dual-nationality British-Iranian citizens for the purposes of bartering political advantages: putting innocent people in prison cannot and must not be used as a tool of diplomatic leverage. He is right to do this, and if anything should have gone to Tehran even sooner, though of course such an invitation is at the pleasure of the ayatollahs. It will not be an easy mission.
Not the least of Boris Johnson’s many failures in high public office was his inability to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British dual-nationality citizen serving time in Tehran for alleged spying. More than that, and unforgivably, Mr Johnson made matters far worse by blurting out at a Commons select committee hearing that she had been in Iran “training journalists”, rather than on holiday, and much closer to the Iranian charge sheet. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe does work for the Thompson Reuters Foundation, which does excellent work in the field, but she is of Iranian heritage, and had legitimate family business in the country in any case. Mr Johnson messed up her defence, and it is not surprising that her limited bouts of freedom since her incarceration three years ago have been just that – short, and painful.
Britain, in fact, has little quarrel with Iran, and certainly not with the Iranian people. Like the rest of the EU, the UK opposed President Trump’s spiteful decision to renew full sanctions on Iran and abandon the pact that was delivering some semblance of calm in Iran-western relations. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which relieved sanctions on Tehran in return for an end to Iran’s military nuclear ambitions, remains almost the best hope for long-term peace from the Mediterranean to the Afghan border, second only to a (remote) Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
Perhaps Iran believes that the UK still has some mystical power of influence over the Great Satan in Washington. If that were ever true it is not now, and Mr Hunt should advise his hosts exactly that. They shouldn’t need much persuading that Donald Trump doesn’t really take any notice of anybody, nominally friend or foe. Mr Hunt is also going to take up the issue of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran’s agents in one of a number of regional proxy wars against Saudi Arabia or Israel. One optimistic sign is that the rebels said they are halting drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia and its allies, after a request from the United Nations.
If his government had taken a stronger stance against UK arms sales to Saudi, that would have helped his case that the UK is not some sort of natural enemy of Iran.
The British do, however, occupy a special place in the pantheon of Iranian hate figures, the “Little Satan”. It dates back to the quasi-colonial era when British Petroleum (formerly the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) controlled Iran’s natural resources and British intelligence connived with CIA plotters to variously promote, back, control or destabilise various Iranian governments – with particularly bitter memories of the fall of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 (for the “crime” of nationalising BP), and the western alliance with the shah, who was overthrown in the Islamic revolution nearly 40 years ago.
Again, Mr Hunt needs to show the Tehran government that Britain is a friend not a foe, and that its imperialist pretensions are long since abandoned. Some in that part of the world famously have long memoires and a liking for conspiracy theories. Any westerner is bound to be treated as a potential, if not an actual, spy.
The revolutionary guards that effectively run parts of the Iranian economy and still exert considerable political heft are responsible for the detention of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, rather than the diplomats in the Iranian foreign ministry. So Mr Hunt’s entreaties may be sympathetically heard by his polite counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, but not directly by the hard men who matter in Iran’s complex power structures. All who wish for the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and other dual-nationals languishing in Iranian jails, should be aware that her captors have a reputation for ruthlessness.
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