Britain’s relations with Iran have always been complex, in part because we used to meddle so much in that country’s domestic affairs. Early in the 20th century we divided the country into spheres of influence with Russia. After the first world war we helped put Reza Shah Pahlavi on the throne and then replaced him with his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1941. Twelve years later Britain enlisted US support in getting rid of the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq.
As a result, Iranians have long been used to the idea that the British are behind everything, including the bad weather. Even in the late 1970s, when I was posted there as a young Persian-speaking diplomat, the joke was that under Ayatollah Khomeini’s beard you could find the label “Made in England” – though that didn’t stop the authorities turning a blind eye, to put it kindly, when revolutionary mobs attacked the British embassy in 1979 and again in 2011.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of many people of Iranian descent who have married British partners and taken British nationality. Unfortunately Iran, like a number of other countries, does not recognise dual nationality and so regards her as exclusively Iranian. But under British law, she has the same right to consular protection as any other British citizen.
Her case is particularly tragic. It is clear that when she was arrested in Iran last year she was on holiday visiting her mother. The same was true of the Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari who was also arrested and imprisoned back in 2007, when visiting her own mother. Hardliners assumed that, because she worked for the Wilson Center, a respected Washington thinktank, she had to be an agent of the US government. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and Esfandiari was eventually released after several months’ detention.
Boris Johnson misspoke when he told the foreign affairs committee on 1 November that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalists when she was detained. Even if she had been, there would have been no justification for her imprisonment by the Islamic Revolutionary Court. But his false statement was seized upon by the court as evidence that she had indeed been working to undermine the regime.
We all make mistakes, but given the risk of this one making Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight even worse, the foreign secretary should have immediately admitted his error and corrected the record, not waffled about being misconstrued. It is mind-boggling that it was only under repeated questioning at his second appearance before the House of Commons that he finally conceded that he had been wrong to say that she was in Iran in a professional capacity.
Michael Gove was so determined to stand up for his new Brexit ally that he added to the confusion by saying he didn’t know what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran and placed full responsibility for the “democratic” foreign secretary’s failure to read his brief on the Iranian authorities.
This was no help at all, either to Zaghari-Ratcliffe or in setting the record straight.
Delicate cases like this usually have the best chance of being resolved through private diplomacy, as was the case with Esfandiari, in 2007. But we are now beyond that stage. It may be that an ancient but rarely used provision in international law can be used to grant Zaghari-Ratcliffe “diplomatic protection”, but as others have pointed out, this will only help if the Iranian authorities agree.
Meanwhile, we have to keep working at the relationship. Those in Tehran who would like to see better links with Britain – and there are a number of them, especially now that there is so little prospect of engaging with the Trump administration in Washington – constantly run up against the argument of the hardliners that debts Britain owes to Iran remain unpaid, visas are unnecessarily constrained, and the Iranian embassy in London can’t even open a bank account.
They also claim, with some justification, that Iran has yet to receive the full benefits it’s entitled to under the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the five permanent members of the UN security council, including Britain, and Germany.
None of this justifies the continued detention of Zaghari-Ratcliffe; and of course for every complaint emanating from Tehran there are valid counter-claims from the British side. But these obstacles make progress difficult.
Both sides need to set aside the concept of reciprocity. We and the Iranians need to make a fresh effort to wipe the slate clean of past grievances – they and we know what they are. We need to act in accordance with our values, as Johnson has with his offer of help for the victims of the latest terrible earthquake to strike Iran (and Iraq), and our respective national interests.
And in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, draw on the Iranian people’s best humanitarian instincts to help an individual in poor health caught up in a political tug-of-war through no fault of her own. Which was the one capital of an Islamic country in which people held a spontaneous candlelit vigil of sympathy for the victims of 9/11 16 years ago? Tehran.
We have major differences with Iran. But we also have more in common than many people realise, including the efforts both countries have been making to defeat Islamic State. Plus, I would argue, an interest in trying to bring an end to the tragic civil war in Yemen: we sometimes forget that Aden was a British protectorate not that long ago. But first, we have to take care of our people.
• Peter Westmacott was British ambassador to the United States from 2012 to 2016 and is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School