Johnson’s Past Comments May Haunt Him With U.K. Citizen’s Release in Iran

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Boris Johnson faces a moment of political risk next month when British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year sentence on spying charges expires in Iran.

The U.K. prime minister is inextricably linked to the case since he wrongly told Parliament in 2017 -- when he was foreign secretary -- that she had been in Iran to train journalists. The comments were seized on by an Iranian court as proof of her guilt, and Johnson later retracted his words and apologized.

Johnson’s Past Comments May Haunt Him With U.K. Citizen’s Release in Iran

The danger for Johnson is that Iran, embroiled in a row with the U.K. over past debts and with the international community over sanctions, doesn’t release her on March 7. That would put renewed focus on his past comments, at a time he wants attention to be on the U.K.’s Group of Seven presidency and his efforts to reset Britain’s place on the global stage after Brexit. He has tried to keep a low profile on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe issue since becoming premier in 2019.

The prime minister must now take personal charge of efforts to bring Zaghari-Ratcliffe home and “communicate the consequences to Iran -- that it’s just better to let her go than draw this game out,” her husband said.

“I don’t doubt he personally cares,” Richard Ratcliffe said in an interview this week. “Whether he has identified a clear way through and whether he’s been brave enough, maybe not enough yet.”

Charges

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, was arrested in Tehran in April 2016, accused of plotting against the state. She has always insisted she was on vacation with her baby daughter visiting relatives.

She was held in a Tehran jail, including more than eight months in solitary confinement, and is now effectively under house arrest at her parents’ home in the city, where she’s forced to wear an ankle tag.

Neither the U.K. nor Iran has officially linked her case to Tehran’s demands for a payment for undelivered military equipment decades ago to be returned. But according to an October report in the Guardian newspaper, U.K. Defense Seretary Ben Wallace wrote to lawyers acting for families of British-Iranians detained in Iran saying he is trying to find ways to make the payment.

Following Johnson’s 2017 blunder, the case is associated with the premier “both in the British public’s eyes, but also in the Iranian government’s eyes,” Ratcliffe said. “So he does need to be making his position very clear.”

‘Hit the Roof’

Ratcliffe said he “hit the roof” in a meeting with Foreign Office officials last week when they asked him to stay quiet, warning his campaign could jeopardize her release.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said the government is doing “everything we can” to secure the release of British-Iranians. Johnson has raised the issue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, while Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is in regular contact with his counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, they added.

Ratcliffe said the couple’s six-year-old daughter Gabriella, who was 22 months old when Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested, has made a calendar to count down the days to March 7. A swim with her mother is on her early wishlist.

“I had to tell her the pool might not be open yet,” Ratcliffe said.

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