Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 3 November.

“I am grateful to the honourable Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for raising this question. We are deeply concerned that Iran has issued new charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This is indefensible and unacceptable. We are relieved that the groundless new trial, which commenced on 2 November, was adjourned and that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains on furlough, but we will continue to call on Iran to make Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release permanent.

On 29 October, we summoned the Iranian ambassador to make clear our deep concerns about these new charges. We fully support the family’s request for officials from the embassy in Tehran to attend any court hearings. The UK Government issued a note of avowal formally requesting UK Government attendance at Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s recent 2 November hearing. So far, regrettably, we have not been granted access to Iranian judicial hearings of any of our dual British national detainees. We will continue to firmly lobby for access to them.

On 22 September, we summoned the Iranian ambassador and handed over a letter from E3 Foreign Ministers about the human rights situation in Iran, including our shared concern about the arbitrary detention of dual nationals. The ambassador in Tehran will continue to raise this with his Iranian counterpart. The Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to Foreign Minister Zarif three times since the summer and continues to raise the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other UK dual nationals in the strongest terms.

Since the Foreign Secretary was last at the Dispatch Box both he and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have been in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. The Foreign Secretary has spoken with both Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband, when he reiterated that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything we can for her.

The UK Government continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran on the full range of issues of interest to the UK. Our priority remains to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, to promote stability and security in the region, to secure the release of all our dual national detainees, and to keep the diplomatic door open for a new talks with Iran.

Alongside our E3 partners, we are committed to the nuclear deal with Iran—the joint comprehensive plan of action, or JCPOA—as the best means available to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme. As we have said before, we are deeply concerned by Iranian non-compliance. Iran must engage with the dispute resolution mechanism, which we triggered with France and Germany on 14 January, and return to compliance. We also continue to have serious concerns regarding the implications for the security of the region with the expiry date of the United Nations conventional arms embargo on 18 October.

I can assure the House that the safety and good treatment of all dual national British detainees in Iran remains a top priority of the UK Government. We will continue to lobby at all levels for their permanent release on humanitarian grounds so that they can return home safely to their loved ones.”

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome this Statement and the Foreign Secretary’s representations about Nazanin’s case generally, including his rightly voiced opposition to her potential return to prison during a second trial. Yesterday, James Cleverly welcomed the fact that she had not been sent back to prison. However, can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made specific representations to Iran on this possibility? Can he also detail any further multilateral action at the UN to secure her release and that of other British dual nationals incarcerated in Iran?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support. I know that this issue has cross-party support and we are working together on this aim. On his final point, yes, we are working with partners to apply maximum pressure for all dual nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran to be released. On this specific case, we have made specific representations, both through the interactions of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and at ambassadorial level.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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My Lords, the cases of the dual nationals being held in Iran are clearly appalling. Following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I would like to probe the Minister on whether the Government carried out a risk assessment of the safety of Nazanin and others due to the postponement of the IMS debt. We have not had an answer to that either in the Commons or here. Exactly when did the Government ask to attend her trial and what answer did the Iranian authorities give?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, as she will be aware, the Iranians do not recognise Nazanin’s dual national status. We made that representation; it was declined. On the IMS dispute, I assure the noble Baroness that discussions are ongoing to explore further options to resolve this 40 year-old case, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the case at this time because of those ongoing discussions.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, the shocking treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe throws into sharp relief the appalling human rights track record of Iran, does it not? Will the Minister therefore talk specifically about the recent executions of some of the 2019 protesters and the despicable intimidation of members of staff at the BBC Persian service and their families?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I join the noble Lord in recognising that the UK has a long-standing opposition to the death penalty, whatever the reason and in whichever country. We continue to make that case to Iran and other nations. Iran’s criminalisation of co-operation with the British Council and the attacks against BBC Persian employees are also deeply concerning. The Government continue to provide support to defend them repeatedly at the highest levels in Iran.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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In the Statement, the Minister in the other place said that

“we are committed to the nuclear deal with Iran—the joint comprehensive plan of action, or JCPOA—as the best means available to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme.”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/11/20; col. 185.]

The Foreign Secretary suggested on television this morning that there are flaws but until something else is out there, it is the only option. What work has the FCDO undertaken to create an alternative? It has also been suggested that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has shamelessly harassed Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. To save my noble friend the Minister from telling us that he cannot discuss future proscriptions, I ask this: given that the Minister in the other place was clear on the concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities throughout the region, can my noble friend tell the House what possible further destabilising activities the regime and the IRGC can get up to before we act in a tough and appropriate manner?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lord, on my noble friend’s second point, we are acting in conjunction with our E3 allies to ensure that the JCPOA remains alive and on the table. It prevents Iran becoming a nuclear state, which must be a priority.

My noble friend raises concerns about the IRGC. We share them, particularly regarding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and the challenge that she has been presented with the IRGC. On the efforts that we are making, we continue to work with our US allies and E3 partners to ensure that the current ban that was lifted on arm sales to Iran can also reach a conclusion that satisfies our allies across Europe and in the US.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, in April 2019, the Government granted diplomatic protection status to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe—a very welcome signal that the UK treats the case no longer as a consular matter but as a formal legal dispute between Britain and Iran. Has that change of status been reflected in any change in the Government’s approach to this matter? What difference has it made, if any?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, exercising diplomatic protection to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case formally raised it to the level of a state issue. We continue to take further action where we judge that it will help to secure her full and permanent release. For the time being, we welcome the fact that she has been allowed to return home and has not been taken to prison.

Baroness Goudie Portrait Baroness Goudie (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, following on from my noble colleagues’ questions, can the Minister assure us that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be able to have medical check-ups through the embassy every week and that a permanent person will visit her every other day from the embassy? At the moment, I feel she is in a very fragile state, with no continuity of people to be with her besides her family.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, we as Her Majesty’s Government cannot guarantee this, but I assure the noble Baroness that we continue to implore the Iranian authorities that she should receive whatever medical attention she needs.

Viscount Waverley Portrait Viscount Waverley (CB) [V]
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My Lords, what is holding back a resolution? The issue must be more complex than we understand it to be. Is practical horse-trading really going on behind the scenes? For example, have the Supreme Leader’s personal representatives, who are based in London and directly responsible to him, been sat with? If so, with what outcome? What price freedom? Is Iran holding out on its internal judicial process by saying no to the return of the £400 million-plus owed by the Government rather than having the UK turn this into an advantageous negotiation position that could also be put to the benefit of the desperate lot of Iran’s long-suffering people, having been instructed to do so by a UK court? Where is the best practice in the UK’s rule of law in all this?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I agree with the noble Viscount that our argument and challenge are not with the Iranian people; they have suffered for far too long. We are engaging on this issue at the highest level. From the Prime Minister downwards, we are engaged in getting Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and other dual nationals who are arbitrarily detained, released on a permanent basis.

Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Portrait Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it seems clear that the Iranian regime is using the court process as a negotiating tactic. This does not affect dual nationals just from the United Kingdom but also from France, Germany, Australia and the United States. We can probably anticipate that some of these practices will be accelerating ahead of the presidential elections in Iran in June. Have we had discussions with our partners to protect dual nationals across the board and to take joint action?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I welcome the noble Baroness to the House and assure her that we work very closely in conjunction with our partners, including those who have detainees who are arbitrarily detained. On the future elections, it should be in our mind that Ayatollah Khamenei, as spiritual leader, also has ultimate adjudication powers on any decision taken by the Iranian Government.

Lord Dubs Portrait Lord Dubs (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, is there any truth in the allegation that some other countries—Australia, France, Germany, Canada and the USA—have had greater success in getting their people back? Is this only because their people were not dual nationals? Secondly, have the Iranians ever mentioned the money in the course of our negotiations with them about Nazanin’s release?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I have already commented on the ongoing discussions that we are having on the issue of the debt. On the noble Lord’s first point, I believe that he answered his own question. He is quite right that those detainees have been successfully released because they hold a particular nationality. Regrettably, Iran does not recognise dual nationals and that has been its persistent response to our lobbying on this case and others.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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My Lords, all supplementary questions have now been asked.

Sitting suspended.