A U.K. Hostage Crisis Shows Principles Can Be Costly
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Who would want to be an American or British citizen when dealing with a hostile foreign government or terrorist group? Photographs of a disheveled Richard Ratcliffe, who has just finished a three-week hunger strike outside the U.K. Foreign Office, are a reminder that diplomatic principles come with a human price tag.
Ratcliffe’s wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is a British-Iranian dual national who’s been imprisoned in Iran since 2016 for “plotting to topple the government” while visiting family and friends in the land of her birth. She has denied the charges. She remains for the moment under house arrest at her parents’ home, with an appeal against her latest conviction having been rejected.
The U.K. government has made no concessions to her captors, as is standard Anglosphere policy. Leading opposition figures such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan believe the Foreign Office is being inflexible. He has a point.
An independent evaluation of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s condition by experts earlier this year concluded that she has been a victim of torture. She has been held for periods in solitary confinement, repeatedly interrogated, deprived of sleep and threatened with permanent separation from the daughter she was nursing at the time of her arrest.
Her cruel treatment is intended to put pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government. Along with other detained dual nationals, she is a bargaining chip for an unpaid British debt to Iran.
While other European governments quietly pay multimillion-dollar ransoms to terrorist groups and rogue regimes that kidnap their citizens, both the U.K. and U.S. refuse to negotiate.
Even Israel, which implacably hunts down those who murder its nationals, is willing to release hundreds of convicted prisoners in its jails in return for the life of just one man or woman. This week, talks resumed over four Israelis captured or abducted by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
American administrations don’t always hang tough in practice. Indirect deals are brokered to get hostages out while avoiding overt linkage to ransom payments. Although President Ronald Reagan famously said in 1985, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Washington tends to negotiate if the hostage-taker is a state or if the victim is a soldier, such as Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive from 2009 to 2014 by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The British Foreign Office, however, is a stickler for principle — to the point of indifference to human suffering, say critics. More fairly, it could be said that rather than a ransom situation, the British government and its officials have, in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, delayed resolving a festering diplomatic stand-off.
In 1971 the Shah of Iran agreed to purchase 1,500 Chieftain tanks from the U.K government. But the U.K. refused to deliver the order to Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary government that overthrew the Shah in 1979 and failed to refund a 400 million-pound ($539 million) down payment. Iran demanded its money back and its case eventually went to arbitration at the International Court at the Hague, which ruled in its Iran’s favor. The U.K. never paid.
The British have never given a formal explanation for withholding the money. That means payment today would be seen as an indirect ransom for Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other dual nationals wrongly imprisoned by Iran.
Speaking to the BBC last week, former U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the payment was not equivalent to a ransom but in effect the settlement of an outstanding debt. “We are a country that pays its debts,” he added, restating another sound principle of British policy.
Two more complicating factors matter here. By joining international sanctions against Iran, the U.K. has made it difficult to pay up since banks involved in the financial transfer would be liable to sanctions too. Hunt suggests that payment could be made in kind — for shipments of medicine, for instance. Talks will resume at the end of the month between the U.S. and Iran, which could see Washington return to the nuclear deal with Tehran that President Trump abrogated in 2018. In that case sanctions would be eased.
Careful to avoid offending its American ally, London has not wanted to give the appearance of going soft on Iran. Yet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that settlement of the debt “is a sovereign decision for the United Kingdom.”
If recent U.S. precedent is a guide, there is no obstacle. In 2016 President Barack Obama transported $400 million by plane to pay off a U.S. debt to Iran. It was freighted on wooden pallets in bundles of Swiss francs, euros and other currency notes. Four American prisoners were released on the same day.
But does Anglo-American hardball work in practice? Not if you are a kidnap victim, of course, although there may be a wider deterrent effect.
Of the 23 prisoners held hostage by the Islamic State terrorist group, six of the seven who were American or British were murdered. One, John Cantlie, a freelance photographer who had worked for my old newspaper, The Sunday Times, has not been located but there are faint hopes that he may be alive. Fifteen out of 16 of those remaining were released in return for payment.
A study of 1,000 kidnappings between 2011-2013, however, suggests that the numbers of Americans and British citizens abducted by terrorists stayed flat over that period whereas those from countries that paid ransom demands soared by 30%.
But the true numbers of those abducted may be disguised by a humanitarian sleight of hand. U.K. and U.S. governments can designate the perpetrators as ordinary criminals not terrorists, allowing families and their private insurance representatives to negotiate ransom payments.
When British citizen Judith Tebbutt was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2011, the Foreign Office didn’t look too closely at the details as London-based Control Risks secured her release. Tebbutt’s kidnappers may have been linked to the Al-Shabaab terror group. Her son, Ollie told The Guardian, “my mum would not have come home” had the U.K. government decided that her kidnappers were terrorists.
This gruesome calculus does not take into account the seizure of dual nationals by hostile states. Some authoritarian regimes like Iran don’t recognize dual nationality, so women like Zaghari-Radcliffe end up becoming bargaining chips.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a House of Commons committee of MPs that a cash payment of the U.K.’s debt to Iran “was worth considering” to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but said the matter had “complexities.” Too complex, perhaps, for him. As foreign secretary, Johnson handed Tehran a propaganda victory when he wrongly declared in 2017 that Zaghari-Ratcliffe “had been teaching people journalism” before her arrest. That lent false credence to the charge that she was engaged in anti-regime propaganda.
Alas, the prime minister could not promise Ratcliffe that his wife would be returning home for Christmas. But if the U.K. has already decided it is right in principle to pay back the 400 million pounds, why not sooner rather than later?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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