Sunday, February 5

Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Hunt calls for inquiry into delay over Iran debt payment | Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

The former British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for an independent investigation into why it took six years to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, saying she was right to question why her release took so long to secure.

Both Hunt and the former foreign minister Alistair Burt have said they would be willing to give evidence about the issues involved in securing her release. Burt has proposed there should be a foreign affairs select committee inquiry into why the payment of a historic debt was delayed.

Both are understood to be anxious that the UK takes the opportunity to learn wider lessons from the negotiations – rather than allow the issues to be forgotten amid the Ukraine and cost of living crises.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national, was held in Iran after visiting her parents with her then-22-months-old daughter, Gabriella. She was accused of plotting against the regime, linked to her work de ella with media charities though she was not carrying out that work while in the country.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who campaigned for six years for her release, said she was a state hostage and his wife and another prisoner, Anoosheh Ashoori, were released when the UK paid a historic £400m debt to Iran.

At a press conference on Monday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she did not agree with her husband thanking the British government. “I mean, how many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come home? Five? We all know… how I came home. It should have happened exactly six years ago. I should not have been in prison for six years.”

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in to Twitter thread on Tuesday, Hunt said: “Those criticizing Nazanin have got it so wrong. She does not owe us gratitude: we owe her de ella an explanation.

“She’s absolutely right that it took too long to bring her home. I tried my best – as did other foreign secretaries – but if trying our best took six years then we must be honest and say the problem should have been solved earlier.”

Hunt said it was right that “ministerial turnover may have been a factor” and said there was also “initial reluctance to pay the debt because people worried it would look like a ransom. So undoubtedly were the complications over how to pay a country that is sanctioned.”

Jeremy Hunt said factors including ministerial turnover could have contributed to delays in securing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. Photograph: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

But he said it was now right that an independent investigation examined if lessons could be learned and said he would be “glad to assist”.

“Such a review also needs to assess whether our current policy is sufficient to stop hosting taking in the future,” he said. “If democracies can show such impressive unity on Russian sanctions, surely we can do the same to stamp out the 19th-century practice of hostage taking?

“This kind of open scrutiny as to whether we could do things better is what happens in democratic, open societies. It may be something they don’t welcome in places like Iran and Russia but it is why, ultimately, we are wiser and stronger.”

Burt, a Tory MP until 2019, called for the committee to launch an inquiry into why the debt was not paid and into who – either in the governments of the UK or the US – resisted making the payment.

Burt also said he repeatedly urged the government to pay the £400m, which he said was “not a ransom, but a debt owed”. Burt was Middle East minister between 2017 and 2019, and says even now he is not sure what forces were preventing the debt’s payment.

It is understood that Burt at one point formed a view that the then defense secretary Gavin Williamson was opposed to the payment. Burt challenged him, leading to a row, but never received a direct response.

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