Hunt criticises timeframe to secure freedom of detainees in Iran

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on March 23rd 2022, 12:00am

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has praised the “extraordinary achievement” of securing the release of British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori from captivity in Iran, but hit out at the amount of time taken to bring them home.

Upon visiting her parents in Iran in 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was placed under house arrest for six years on charges of espionage. Ashoori was detained in 2017 and remained in captivity for almost five years on the same charges before being released at the same time as Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Both have always denied any wrongdoing.

Now that the pair have returned to the UK, Hunt has called for an independent inquiry into the process for securing their freedom.

However, Hunt himself served as foreign secretary between July 2018 and July 2019 and played a part in that process.

Explaining himself in an interview with BBC Radio 4, Hunt said he did “everything I could” to free the duo but the entire process “took too long”.

He said: “I think we all have to say: ‘could we have done it faster?’ And the answer is we could have.”

While Hunt praised incumbent foreign secretary Liz Truss and the Foreign Office for successfully negotiating their release, Zaghari-Ratcliffe questioned upon her return why it took five foreign secretaries over six years to secure her release.

She said in a press conference after retuning to the UK: “I have seen five foreign secretaries change over the course of six years. How many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come home?”

Despite her critical tone drawing criticism from some quarters, Hunt aligned himself with her comments, saying: “Those criticising Nazanin have got it so wrong. She doesn't owe us gratitude: we owe her an explanation.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe also claims that her captors informed her that her arrest was linked to an unpaid £400 million debt that the UK owed to Iran for a failed arms deal dating back to the 1970s. Prime minister Boris Johnson recently authorised repayment of the debt, but both the UK and Iranian governments have subsequently played down the link between the historical debt and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s spell in detention.

Praising Johnson for authorising the repayment, Hunt suggested there was initially “a lot of reluctance” to pay Iran following the taking of Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a hostage, citing concerns that it could be perceived as a ransom payment and encourage the arrest of more Brits when they travel abroad as a means of extorting money from the government.

Hunt also claimed that the decision to repay the historical debt in principle was taken during his tenure at the Foreign Office, and that the process of arranging repayment proved complex given the ongoing economic sanctions against Iran.

Hunt said: “This is not a ransom, it's a debt, and I think that decision that we should pay it in principle was taken when I was foreign secretary.”

Elsewhere, Hunt has criticised the Iranian state for keeping another hostage, Morad Tahbaz, in captivity.

Tahbaz holds British, Iranian and American citizenship, and Hunt said that keeping him under arrest was a blatant use of “an innocent person as a pawn in a diplomatic game” by Iran.

Tahbaz was first arrested in 2018 while carrying out conservation work in the country, accused along with seven others of collating classified information about Iran’s strategic zones, using conservation projects as a cover story. He and his fellow detainees have denied all charges.

Hunt suggested that given Tahbaz’s American citizenship, the Iranian state could be pressing for “something from the Americans before they’re prepared to release him” as part of their negotiating strategy.

Photo by hosein charbaghi on Unsplash

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Rhys Taylor-Brown
Junior Editor
March 23rd 2022, 12:00am

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