Efforts to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be 'long-haul'
Britain’s former ambassador to Tehran has warned against expecting a breakthrough in the the fight to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe when Boris Johnson visits Iran later this year, saying negotiations will involve “a long haul”.
Sir Richard Dalton also poured cold water on the idea of giving Zaghari-Ratcliffe the status of diplomatic protection, an idea proposed by her family and supporters as way of placing greater pressure on the Tehran regime.
The foreign secretary is due to discuss the idea of diplomatic protection with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British husband, Richard, at a meeting on Wednesday. It will be the first time Johnson has met him since Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested during a visit to Iran in April 2016 and accused of espionage, a charge she denies.
Johnson’s personal political career is now wrapped up in the release of the UK-Iranian dual national after he incorrectly said she may have been in Iran training journalists. Her family insist she was on holiday.
Johnson has since retracted the statement in parliament, and after some delay apologised for the mistake on Monday.
Detained for 18 months, ZaghariRatcliffe had already been sentenced to five years and was facing further potential charges before Johnson’s error placed her in greater jeopardy.
Richard Zaghari-Ratcliffe has offered to accompany Johnson to Tehran in an attempt to see his wife in jail, and plead for her release.
Writing in the Guardian the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that if Johnson returned empty-handed from Tehran, UK-Iranian economic relations would be damaged.
But Dalton, who was the British ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2006, has urged the political classes to dial down the rhetoric over the potential for her release, saying the best hope lay in secret diplomacy.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, Dalton said: “I think this is going to be a long haul and I think it is time to let the government get on with it.
“The less debate about political ramifications in the UK from now on the better. I don’t think there should be excessively high expectations. The fact that there are several cases that Mr Johnson, quite rightly, has to handle means that we should not expect too much from an early visit.”
The Iranians are already discounting the connection between Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Johnson’s visit by saying it has been long planned and there are a lot of other issues to discuss.
Dalton said it was the task of the Foreign Office to come up with proposals before the visit, but added: “It is not clear just what Mr Johnson could bring to Iran that can help persuade them that it is in Iran’s interests to release her.”
He said Iran’s revolutionary courts believed they had a proper case, but it was possible for early releases to be granted if it was deemed to be in the higher interest of the Iranian state.
Dalton also poured cold water on the idea of diplomatic protection,
saying the proposal is “extremely vague”.
“I do not see its relevance in this case; we claim that as a British citizen, as well as an Iranian citizen, consular protection should apply,” he said. “The Iranians however have a settled view that second nationality is irrelevant when it comes to extraction.”
Carla Fertsman, director of the human rights group Redress, insisted diplomatic protection would be an effective means of elevating the status of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case.
Iran would like to see the UK take steps to ease banking restrictions so it is easier for foreign companies to operate in Iran without fear of fines being imposed by the US. The EU and US sanctions regimes against Iran are different.
There has, however, been a 60% rise in EU-Iranian trade since the implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal – officially known as the JCPOA – in January 2016.
Johnson is also likely to be pressed in advance of the visit on whether the UK agrees with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has said the Iranian development of its ballistic missile programme, currently outside the JCPOA, could be subject to separate sanctions on Tehran. Iran has strongly objected to Macron’s remarks.
Macron is due to visit Tehran this year after Johnson’s visit, as is his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had already been sentenced to five years and was facing further potential charges before Boris Johnson’s error placed her in greater jeopardy. Photograph: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe/PA