James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the debate and for her tireless work in supporting Nazanin and Richard and in championing this issue. Although there have been times when we have disagreed, it is absolutely right that I put on the record our respect for the hon. Lady’s passion.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) mentioned her support for the family of her constituent, and right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the work that they have done to support family members of those in Iran. Other Members were unable to attend the debate because of ministerial duties—I think particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), who speaks to me regularly about the situation and who is the constituency MP for some of the members of Richard and Nazanin’s family.
Like all Members of the House and everyone in the country, I have huge sympathy for the families of those who are incarcerated in Iran. The Government will continue to do everything we can to resolve the situation in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. The ongoing suffering that Iran is inflicting on British dual nationals such as Anousheh Ashouri and Morad Tahbaz is deeply distressing and rightly elicits very strong feelings from hon. Members of different parties. I cannot overstate the fact that the Government share that frustration and are unwavering in our commitment to resolve this issue. We have made it clear to the Iranian Government at every stage that we expect Iran to release all British dual nationals and allow them to return home to their families.
In today’s debate, we are focusing primarily on Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella. The UK Government continue to work tirelessly to secure Nazanin’s full, permanent release and ability to return home to her family. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, Nazanin was released on furlough into the care of her parents in Tehran in 2020, but the Iranian system has refused to let her return home and has not left her alone during the period of furlough. The Government have kept up our campaign of pressure on the Iranian authorities throughout this time, and we will not relent until she is fully and permanently released.
The completion of Nazanin’s first sentence and the removal of her ankle tag in March 2021 should have been a time for happiness and enabled Nazanin to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella. Instead, Iran doubled down on its baseless charges against her. We have raised our objections at every stage, and when those charges were formalised at a court hearing in April, we summoned the Iranians and demanded that she be released. When her appeal was rejected in October and her sentence confirmed, we again objected in the strongest terms and demanded her release. The Foreign Secretary and this Government continue to be clear in our discussions with Iran that under no circumstances should Nazanin be returned to prison, that we would react strongly if she were and that she should instead be allowed to return home to her family immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised this point again with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, most recently on 8 November. I raised this issue again with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani on 11 November.
At every stage since Nazanin was detained, the UK Government have carefully considered and assiduously pursued the courses of action that we have assessed offer the best opportunity for resolving this case. We have not pursued any course of action that we believe would be counterproductive to the release and return home of those in incarceration.
In March 2019, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) afforded diplomatic protection to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This formally raised it to a state-to-state issue. At that time, he also recognised that that was unlikely to yield immediate results, in part because Iran does not recognise dual national status. Unfortunately, his prediction at the time seems to have been proven right.
Since then, this Government have continued to take further action where we judge it will help to secure full and permanent release. We constantly review what other steps are possible, and we weigh up all the diplomatic and legal tools available to secure her release.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not. A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of the IMS debt. As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, the UK Government recognise that we have a duty to legally repay this debt and we continue to explore all legal options to resolve this 40-year-old case. [Interruption.] We have always been clear.
I want to address the point that my right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith made and the way his words have been interpreted, and I want to make the point absolutely clear. We have always been clear that we do not accept British dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey made the point with regard to the payment of the IMS debt that it is not easy, and he is right.
This Government remain committed to doing everything we can to explore all avenues to secure Nazanin’s release. We always act in what we believe to be her best interests, with the ultimate aim of securing her return home to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella.
Since the family requested assistance from my Department, officials have provided support to Nazanin’s family and are available to be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since Nazanin’s release on furlough, we have also been able to talk directly to her through our ambassador in Tehran. We will continue to offer that support until Nazanin is returned home.
This Government and I have the utmost respect and admiration—I have said this directly to him and I am more than happy to say this publicly again— for Mr Ratcliffe’s stoicism, resolve and commitment to securing Nazanin’s release and for the support of his family. Mr Ratcliffe has met with the Foreign Secretary, with me and with senior officials. We will continue to update him, and the other families who have British dual nationals in incarceration, whenever we have information on progress or whenever we feel there is an update to do with the families in detention.
Our concern for Nazanin and her family is mirrored by our concern for all detained British nationals in Iran and their families, wherever they may be. Their welfare remains a top priority for this Government. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly lobbies on mistreatment allegations and on their health, whenever we have specific concerns or whenever a family member brings this issue to our attention. This Government will continue to lobby for the full and permanent release of those held in Iran.
On our international efforts, we will also collaborate with all relevant international partners to seek to put an end to Iran’s unacceptable practice of detaining foreign and dual nationals in an attempt to find some kind of diplomatic leverage. As part of a Canadian initiative on arbitrary detention, we are committed to enhancing international co-operation to prevent any state from arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals for coercive purposes.
On the debt, which is obviously crucial—many Members raised it—as the Minister accepts that it will be repaid, can he give any indication of the Government’s timetable for the repayment of that debt by whatever means?
It is not possible to give the hon. Gentleman details on that. As I said, we recognise the legal duty to repay the debt, and we will explore all legal options for doing so.
I once again express my deepest sympathies for Richard and his family, and indeed to all the families of those incarcerated in Iran. He has campaigned with such tireless commitment. The Government will continue to push in all the ways we can.
The Minister mentioned Anousheh Ashouri, my constituent. I am grateful for that. However, the family are still waiting to hear whether they have received diplomatic protection from the Government. Is the Minister able to respond to that?
We of course consider this issue carefully. However, I have made the point already that—I suspect in large part because Iran does not recognise dual nationality and therefore does not recognise our authority to speak on this issue—that has proven to be of limited success in the instance of Nazanin. We will continue to hold the Iranian Government to account for their treatment of the British dual nationals in incarceration, including Anousheh Ashouri and Morad Tahbaz. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to doing whatever we can to secure their release and will continue to work and make representations at every opportunity on their behalf.
I remind all Members that it was the Iranian Government who arrested these British dual nationals. It was the Iranian Government who applied these bogus charges against them. It was the Iranian Government who hold these people in incarceration and prevent them from coming home. It is the Iranian Government who are wholly and solely responsible for the appalling circumstances that these people find themselves in. The British Government will continue to work tirelessly to secure their release and return home. I assure everyone in the House that that will remain our priority until they are released and are able to return home.