On the 23 September, one week after being appointed foreign secretary, Liz Truss tweeted: “Today marks 2,000 days since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s cruel separation from her family. We are working tirelessly to secure her return home to her family. I have pressed Iran on this and will continue to until she returns home.”
Nobody doubts Truss’s ability to talk the talk, but questions remain over whether she is willing to walk the walk. The release of a British national being held hostage by a rogue state should be a priority for any foreign secretary. It certainly appeared to be for Truss’s predecessors, not least Jeremy Hunt. But is the current incumbent really willing to put the legwork in to get Nazanin home?
The telling facts are as follows. Truss did not answer an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on the matter last month, as Nazanin faced the prospect of an extra year in prison. It took Richard Ratcliffe beginning his hunger strike for Truss to meet with him. Nor was she present when, on 11 November, the Iranian deputy foreign minister came to King Charles Street for a meeting with the Foreign Office.
However well-meaning the minister who did attend may be, for me, the no show from Truss sends a clear signal. In my view, if Nazanin’s release was truly a priority, as Truss suggested, she should have been there, working towards a solution in this most desperate of cases.
Instead, as Ratcliffe sat on the steps of the Foreign Office on his 21-day hunger strike, Truss was nowhere to be seen. She was too busy jetting around eastern Europe and Asia, seemingly cosying up to authoritarian leaders in an attempt to strike trade deals despite what that might imply for our animal welfare and agricultural standards.
From what I have seen, it’s hard to identify a difference in Truss’s day-to-day activities between now and earlier in the year when she was the international trade secretary. But being the foreign secretary is so much more than just selling Brand UK. It is equally about representing and protecting British interests and citizens overseas. I certainly struggle to see that in how Truss has handled Nazanin’s case thus far. I hope I am proven wrong.
Richard, Nazanin’s devoted husband, recently met with James Cleverly. He left the meeting fraught with anger, distraught at the fact that almost nothing seems to be being done by the British government to secure Nazanin’s release. Mr Ratcliffe has criticised the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for not taking this seriously enough. It appears as though they have run out of ideas.
The painful irony is that everyone knows which lever the UK government needs to pull. It is the payment of the £400m debt, dating back to undelivered Chieftain tanks which the British agreed to manufacture for the Iranians in the 1970s. This debt is legitimately owed. It has been accepted by international and British courts, and by the Ministry of Defence.
It is not a partisan issue – the former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has also said that paying the debt is the step which the UK government should take. And yet, the government still does not want to enter into a conversation about the payment. Most likely because the Americans have asked them not to as a stick/carrot in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiations.
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However, this tactic is wrong. It simply antagonises the Iranians. We cannot guarantee that paying the debt will release Nazanin and others, like Anoosheh Ashoori, but we owe it and its payment should not be in question. They need to break the link and, if Iran continues to hold them hostage, then it shows the Iranian regime for what it is.
The UK government has a chance to take a step in the right direction when, on Tuesday 16 November, parliament debates Nazanin’s release. The foreign secretary should take this opportunity to demonstrate to all MPs that securing Nazanin’s freedom is a priority issue. She should commit the UK government to repaying the debt.
At the heart of this dreadful saga is a family. Some of Richard’s family are constituents of mine, and I have met with Richard, spoken with him and seen the pain in his eyes. This is a man with a young daughter who has not seen her mother for over five years. We can’t forget there are other families implicated too, like that of Annosh Ashoori. It’s time that Truss and the government stood up, took responsibility and tackled this enormous injustice.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
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