Middle East

How to get Iran to release prisoners

BY Denis MacShane   /  13 November 2017

‎Getting Iran to behave well is never easy and the extraordinary sequence of unforced errors by British politicians of all stripes as well as shouty press and BBC headlines is making matters for worse for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

‎The UK could offer massive aid help to Iran after the earthquake that has just killed hundreds. The immediate despatch of planes full of equipment and survival gear with British medical and other emergency relief personnel would be a good end in itself and very well-timed as a gesture to the Iranian people in their hour of disaster.

‎There is loads of badly spent DfID money and this is a moment to use it well.

But please keep British politicians and journalists away. Boris Johnson’s foolish  remark about Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe being in Iran to train journalists should have been instantly corrected. It is impossible to believe there was no-one in Johnson’s private office who did not spot this.  Nick Hopton, the British ambassador in Iran, is one of the best UK diplomats and a good novelist to boot. It is hard to imagine he did not cable Johnson on the seriousness of his gaffe.

‎But then what were two former foreign secretaries, Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw doing attacking Johnson? Straw went to Iran so often he was dubbed “Jack of Teheran” by the rightist US commentator, Charles Krauthammer. But Straw, along with Germany’s Joschka Fisher and France’s Dominique de Villepin was right to do so as the West tried to wean Iran away from sponsoring terror and developing nuclear weapons.

It is open season on Johnson but add in Michael Gove’s unbelievable statement to Andrew Marr that he did not not know what Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran – thus confirming Iran’s claim she was up to no good – or Jeremy Corbyn’s grandstanding in demanding Johnson be fired and it quite clear that politicians are ready to sacrifice her in order to score a point.

In March 2007, the Iranians detained four Royal Navy sailors whose navigation skills were so poor they crossed into Iranian waters in a small boat.

By chance I was staying in Rome with a friend, Francis Campbell, who was UK ambassador to the Holy See. In an insane bit of FCO cost-cutting when I was Europe Minister, FCO anti-catholic bean-counters had proposed the merger of the bi-lateral UK embassy with Italy with the embassy to the Vatican.

As Europe minister I was told by officials the Vatican had signed off on this. They were lying. The Vatican was furious and having seen the superb diplomatic network the Vatican had in so many part of the world, like South America or the Balkans, and how much I had learnt from talking to Vatican ambassadors, I thought the idea nuts and squashed it.

So when the news of the Royal Navy arrests broke I contacted Tony Blair’s office in Downing Street and suggested we use the Pope as an intermediary. Francis Campbell, our Holy See ambassador, who had  begun training as a catholic priest, had excellent contacts and got to work.

In the end the Pope addressed a fraternal message to the supreme ayatollah as one church leader to another saying that at Easter time it was right for families to be united.

It wasn’t quite en clair but it allowed Iran enough face to let the British sailors go home.

It is not clear what can happen now but a period of silence from ministers, MPs and the press would probably help. The one thing Iran won’t do is reward Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn or allow headlines that say Iran surrenders to Britain.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of State for Europe.