Published:

Nazanin-Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national, has been released from custody in Iran, and is making her way home to the UK. Detained by the Iranian government over five years ago under allegations she was plotting to overthrow it, her case became even more high profile when Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, misleadingly commented that she had been ‘teaching people journalism’ in the country. Since then, her husband Richard, assisted both in and out of government by Johnson’s successor Jeremy Hunt, has been zealously pursuing her release.

Speaking yesterday morning, the Liz Truss said securing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom had been ‘an absolute priority’. But that the crucial breakthrough has come at our particular moment of geopolitical tension is not wholly surprising

One of the reasons used to justify Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention has been a £400 million debt owed by the British government dating back to the 1970s. We had sold the Shah 1500 tanks. Before the order had been fully delivered, the Iranian revolution brought the Shah down, and replaced him with the theocracy that has continued to blight that historic and beautiful country until the present day. Unsurprisingly, Margaret Thatcher was hardly keen to hand over weaponry or cash to a regime that considers Britain the “Little Satan”. The debt has been a point of tension ever since.

Hunt has been calling for the government to pay up for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom since last year. A debt, whilst naturally undesirable, sounds better than a ransom, as Henry Hill pointed out on this site last year. When asked about the it yesterday, the Foreign Secretary commented that we were ‘looking for ways to pay it’ and that the debt was ‘legitimate’.

That the Government has decided to take this view now is likely driven not only by a desire to finally wipe out a black mark in the Prime Minister’s ledger. With energy prices surging and weaning Europe off Russian oil a priority, getting Iran’s stocks back onto the world market would be as helpful as a positive outcome to Johnson’s current visit to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, any effort to split the Iranians off from their old ally Russia would be a geopolitical boon.

Nonetheless, this move also stems from the primary objective of post-war British foreign policy: keeping in with the Americans.  Since Donald Trump removed the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal, as everyone calls it – and revived sanctions against the state, the foreign policy bigwigs on both sides of the Atlantic have wanted to undo his actions.

Consequently, paying up to Iran would remove one obstacle in the way of clinching for Joe Biden the same prize that the last Democratic occupant of the White House so coveted. But as Stephen Pollard pointed out for Cap X yesterday, the inconvenient truth for Western policymakers was that sanctions had been effective – in 2018 and 2019, Iran’s economy shrunk by 14.3 per cent. That was less cash to spend in its continuing efforts to de-stabilise the Middle East.

If the oil is to flow again (and a cool £400 million is to appear in the Mullahs’ bank accounts) then that economic pain won’t be for much longer. Though the Prime Minister’s conscience may be a little clearer this morning, it would be a shame if it has come at the cost of paying up to a vile and repressive regime – especially just at the time he has been doing such a good job at standing up to Russia’s. At least, for all that, today a little girl has been reunited with her mother, and a husband with his wife. But the Ayatollah and his regime have never been known for their sentimentality.