A prisoner and now a pawn on two gigantic diplomatic chessboards | Patrick Wintour

Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with a fracturing Middle East are intertwined with the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Boris Johnson claimed on Monday “there is nothing more important than the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and that trumps all other political considerations in this country”. However, that assurance is hardly likely to feel credible for her husband, Richard, who admitted earlier: “I think there is a wider politics that people are positioning themselves around.”

Indeed, the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family is gradually discovering what it is to be a pawn on not one but two gigantic diplomatic chessboards. For both Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with a fracturing Middle East are now intertwined in her case.

Take the Brexit chessboard first. The British political class, suffering from a form of monomania, is unable to see world events though anything but the prism of Brexit. Johnson’s handling of her case is either condemned or defended according to the speaker’s views on Britain leaving the EU. So Michael Gove, his friendship with Johnson restored, appeared on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show and thought primarily how best to protect a fellow Brexiter, and in so doing again threw doubt on why Zaghari-Ratcliffe had ever been in Iran prior to her arrest. By contrast, Nicky Morgan, the pro-remain treasury select committee chairwoman, suggested Johnson should consider resignation. Labour called for Johnson to be fired only to discover that her husband felt this would serve no purpose.

The Foreign Office, for its part, inevitably had seen the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case as a subplot in the wider drama about the UK’s future relations with Iran. Johnson’s priorities, ahead of his visit to Tehran at the end of the year, would be to protect the Iran nuclear deal and rebuild Anglo-Iranian business links – but without abandoning the UK’s right to criticise Iran’s “malign” behaviour in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The fate of dual nationals such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be raised, but was hardly paramount.

But the weeklong furore over Johnson’s blunder that Zaghari-Ratcliffe may not have been in Tehran on holiday but on a visit to train journalists catapulted her case on to higher diplomatic terrain. That is both a boon for her since her fate is in some way intertwined with Johnson’s career, and even Brexit, but also a bane since the price for her release by the Iranians has just shot through the roof.

In the short term, Johnson is under pressure to grant her the status of diplomatic protection as the family had requested two months ago. The Foreign Office has no requirement to do so in the case of dual nationals, but her lawyers argue since she has been a British citizen since in 2013, her nationality is predominantly British and her arrest is linked to alleged activities on behalf of Britain. Providing diplomatic protection elevates her case to a state to state dispute rather than a consular matter. It is a statement of seriousness, rather than a solution, even if it might give UK diplomats a stronger legal claim to press to see her in jail.

But the bigger question for Johnson is whether to warn Tehran that unless she is released the recent improvement in relations will be threatened. Writing in the Guardian, the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggests that if her sentence is increased “it would represent the worst crisis in Anglo-Iranian relations for many years. If Johnson left Tehran empty handed, it would not only be bad for him, but it would inevitably damage the growing economic links between the two countries.”

Both Iran and the UK are loath for this to happen. Iran has been pressing UK ministers to intervene to boost UK-Iranian trade, in line with expectations at the time the Iran nuclear deal led to the lifting of economic sanctions by the EU and US in January 2016.

Norman Lamont, the UK trade envoy with Iran, claims Britain has been paralysed on this issue for months.The Iranian embassy in the UK, for instance, cannot secure a bank account.

But Johnson says the UK dare not risk indemnifying UK banks or companies that trade with Iran against US sanctions.

Regardless of the fact that all European companies in theory face the same risk of fines, UK firms appear the most cautious and trade in absolute terms trails way behind Tehran’s trade with Germany, France and Italy.

The great danger now is that not only will the US Congress reimpose many of the sanctions lifted at the time of the nuclear deal but the EU, in deference to US concerns about Iran’s behaviour, including its ballistic missile tests, will also impose new sanctions.

If that happens, not even Pericles, Johnson’s great hero, would be able to persuade the Iranians to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe from her agony.


Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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