It is widely understood that the incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by the Iranian authorities is linked to an historic debt supposedly owed by the United Kingdom to the Iranian state. Recently, the Ratcliffes’ local MP, Tulip Siddiq, called on the government in Parliament to settle the debt with Iran in order secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. It is also understood that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, intended to urge Boris Johnson to pay the contested amount when he met him last Thursday. So far the government has indicated a disinclination to do so. For the sake of the safety of British nationals, it must not.
As is widely known, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested by Iranian authorities on 3 April 2016 and charged and sentenced on bogus accusations of espionage against the Iranian state. It has since become evident that she is being held hostage by Iran in order to secure the payment of the historic debt that Iran claims it is owed by Britain. The debt relates to an order of tanks that the country placed with Britain in the 1970s, in the days of the Shah. At the time, Iran was required to pay a substantial amount of the cost of the tanks up front, in order to cover the costs of manufacture. However, before the majority of the tanks had been delivered, the Iranian revolution took place in 1979. The new regime terminated the contract for the tanks and demanded that £250 million, which Iran under the Shah had paid in advance, be returned. There has since followed a hugely long running legal saga through international and British courts. Events have been further complicated by sanctions imposed on Iran, which make any payments to many of its government and state bodies illegal under international law, including this debt.
A number of suggestions have been made as to how to remedy the situation, and these include ways of paying the debt. These include a proposal by Sir Alan Duncan to pay the debt into an escrow account so that Iran could be paid the money in the form of humanitarian aid, humanitarian aid not being subject to US sanctions. Others have pointed out that Iran constantly complains of its people lacking access to food and medicine as a result of sanctions, and that paying the amount towards the relief of this could be an acceptable compromise.
However, for the safety of British citizens, most especially those travelling, we must not do this. Regardless of the relative merits of whether we should or should not pay the debt to Iran, now that they have taken a hostage as part of their strategy to secure the payment, we must not pay it. For to do so would be to set a highly dangerous precedent whereby Iran could continue seizing hostages whenever it wants to gain something or whenever it feels it is owed something. Or simply in any situation in which it desires more leverage. For they will have been shown that, in dealing with Britain, this is an approach that works.
Indeed, the seizing of Zaghari-Ratcliffe itself may well be due to past Iranian success with such tactics – including with none other than the USA. Just weeks before the arrest of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an American journalist, Jason Rezaian, was released by Iran, having been held by them for eighteen months. This took place around the time of the Iran nuclear deal, and Rezaian was released as part of a prisoner swap. Interestingly, the US also paid Iran about $400 million that it had owed since the time of the Shah, plus interest of about $1 billion. It seems entirely feasible, if not probable, that Iran decided to try the same tactic with Britain that appeared to have worked with the USA. After all, the UK is only the “little Satan” to the “great Satan” of the US. If we pay Iran now, there is every likelihood that they will use the same tactic in the future. We would therefore be exposing further British citizens to risk of such treatment.
The government is insisting that the process through the courts of the debt is an entirely separate issue and that the legal process will take its course regardless of any progress made with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case. There is clear merit in this argument, in that it ostensibly commits Britain to the outcome of a legal process over which it has no control at the same time as making clear that the hostage-taking of Iran will have no influence over whether or not they pay the debt. Yet, should the court find in favour of repaying the amount to Iran, and Britain then pay, Iran will undoubtedly see the capture of Zaghari-Ratcliffe as having played its part – after all, they can point out, why else would the government now be willing to pay after having dragged the case through the court for decades. This is an issue that the government will have to face. They may opt to pay, according to the court’s judgement, and thereby also secure the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But they would also be endorsing Iran’s hostage taking tactics. More subtly than if they paid directly for her release, as per Duncan’s suggestion, but with enough coincidence of timing for Iran to draw a link. What to do in the event of such a judgement should be the subject of close discussion. But until then, Britain should absolutely not pay this “debt” to Iran to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, as gut-wrenching as it is. The safety of many more British citizens depends upon it.