UK would obey court order to repay Iran £400m, says Hunt

Ex-foreign secretary adds debt would not form deal for release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

The former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said Britain would obey a court order to repay £400m to Iran, if the precise sum owed is agreed, but added the cash could not be linked to the release of the imprisoned British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

He also said western policy towards Iran was not working, arguing Europe and the US needed to come together with a new policy that provided a ladder for Iran to climb down leading to sanctions relief.

Hunt was speaking on the day the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, was scheduled to meet the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in New York on the sidelines of the UN general assembly to discuss the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, is in New York to launch a campaign, supported by Hunt, that brings together families from different nationalities that have fallen victim to state hostage taking.

Hunt said Ratcliffe was right and that “quiet behind the scenes diplomacy by individual countries is clearly not working”.

He accused the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, of explicitly linking the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe to the UK payment of a historical debt owed by the UK. The debt relates to a deal in the 1980s over the UK’s non-delivery of Chieftain tanks for which a previous Iranian regime had paid.

Successive courts have found the UK is liable to pay the debt, but Hunt told BBC Radio 4 there was an outstanding legal dispute over the precise sum. There has also been a hidden political dispute within the UK government over whether the money should be paid.

Zarif on Sunday claimed an agreement had been reached with some cabinet ministers such as Philip Hammond for the release of the money, but Hunt as foreign secretary had scuppered the deal.

Hunt hit back by saying it was extraordinary that Zarif was admitting “very openly they are holding an innocent woman with a five-year-old daughter as a tool of diplomatic leverage to try to settle a financial dispute with the UK”.

He added: “Our policy as the British government had always been absolutely clear. We are a law-abiding government, so if there is a court order that says that this money has to be paid ... then we obey the law”. He said “the court process is still continuing, it is still deciding the exact amount that has to be paid.

“We obey court rulings, but what we will not do is link it to the release of a hostage because if you do that you then you encourage countries like Iran to take hostages in the future when they have another dispute.”

He denied he had taken a different view to previous foreign secretaries. Ministerial sources say the biggest blockage came from Gavin Williamson during his time as defence secretary, and that the issue is politically off the table due to the UK declaring, along with France and Germany this week, that Iran was responsible for the attack on the Saudi Aramco oil installations on 14 September.

Hunt called on Europe and the US to unify their policies on Iran, saying a strategy that left the two allies divided would not work.

He said: “The starting point has to be that western policy towards Iran is failing and the policy of maximum economic pressure designed to deter malign Iranian activity is clearly not working if you look at the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facility on 14 September. You cannot underestimate the significance of that.

“By the same merit, the European policy of trying to keep the nuclear deal going is also failing because Iran is in the process of breaching its uranium limits, so we need to rethink. The lesson I think is that when the US and Europe go their separate ways on Iran policy, in the end it does not work and we need to come together.”

He said the Iranians needed to clearly know the negative consequences if they behaved negatively, and “at the same time there has to be a ladder for them to climb down so that if they start to behave positively, so they can see a more positive outcome in terms of sanctions relief or whatever it is”.

In a joint statement issued on Monday evening, the UK, France and Germany defended the existing Iran deal but re-emphasised a position first adopted by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in the months leading up to Donald Trump quitting the deal in 2018.

Macron had proposed the agreement signed in 2015 could be expanded to include new proposals for how the nuclear deal would function after some of its terms expire in 2025. The expanded deal would also cover the future of the Iranian ballistic programme and Iran’s regional behaviour, according to Macron’s plan.

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Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

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