The British government has known for many years that paying a £400million debt to Iran would likely lead to the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, former Foreign Secretary Alistair Burt said in a letter to the United Kingdom. selection committee for foreign affairs. †
Burt, a Tory MP until 2019, is calling on the commission to investigate why the debt was not paid and who – in the UK or US governments – was resisting payment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, was released last week immediately after the UK paid the debt, and at a press conference on Monday asked why it had taken five foreign secretaries and six years to secure her release.
Burt also said he repeatedly urged the government to pay the £400 million, which he said was “not a ransom but a debt owed”.
Burt served as Middle East minister between 2017 and 2019, and says he’s not sure even now which forces were preventing the debt from being paid.
It is the first time a former minister has revealed so much about the clashes within the government over the failure to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release earlier. It is clear that Burt has told the committee that he is willing to testify publicly or privately.
The £400m debt relates to a 1970s arms deal in which the UK took money from Iran’s Shah but failed to deliver the promised Chieftain tanks after he was deposed by Islamist revolutionaries.
In his letter to the commission, Burt cautiously says he could not have known for sure whether the payment would have resulted in the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, another dual citizen.
But, he said, he knew from his talks with senior Iranian ministers that payment was an opportunity to open a new relationship with Iran and “remove a barrier to the relationship and possibly their release.”
He said he reported to then-Secretary of State Boris Johnson (in post from 2016 to 2018) that he understood from his contacts with then-Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi that “debt payment was fundamental to their release”.
Burt also said he knew there were practical difficulties in paying the debt due to US sanctions, but routes were being explored, including payment in humanitarian aid or through commitments from the Iranian Foreign Ministry that the money would not go to the Iranian military. to go.
Obviously, at one point Burt felt that then-Secretary of Defense Gavin Williamson was against the payment and challenged him, leading to an argument, but he never received a direct response.
Other possible blockades included the US government led by Donald Trump.
Burt has also said he would welcome his ministerial documents proving his plea for payment of the debt to be made public before any investigation by a select committee on foreign affairs.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has also been asked to investigate Tulip Siddiq, the Labor MP for Hampstead, and the MP representing Richard Ratcliffe, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband.
Burt, an experienced and respected figure in the Middle East, is curious as to whether the resistance was internal to the administration or whether it came from the Trump administration.
In his letter, he writes: “I believe we should now find out who or what stopped the payments.”
Ratcliffe has said he believes a parliamentary inquiry is the best way to find the truth, as opposed to seeking judicial review.
Ministers may be hesitant to conduct an inquiry as it begins to find out to what extent British policy towards Iran, and the fate of dual citizenship, was dictated by pressure from the Trump administration.
In a clue to the Trump administration’s stance on the payment of the debt, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State under Trump, last week accused Britain of paying blood money by settling its debt.