In January 2016, $400m (£290m) was flown by the United States to Tehran in the dead of night. Loaded on to wooden pallets on an unmarked plane, it was the first in a series of instalments to satisfy an unfulfilled American-Iranian arms deal signed in 1979, before the Shah was replaced in the revolution. On the morning after the payment, four American prisoners were released, boarding planes back to their homeland.
The White House insisted the payment and the release were coincidental. But General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), took to Iranian state media to proclaim:
'Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies.'
Five years on, some high-ranking British politicians are lining up to suggest we should do something similar in order to secure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
In 2008, an international arbitration court ruled that the UK owed Iran £400m for an unfulfilled deal for Chieftain tanks. But Tehran and Downing Street have tussled over the exact amount owed and whether or not Britain should pay interest.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe has endured an unspeakably nightmarish five years of detention, with solitary confinement, torturous conditions and rights abuses throughout. Her latest sentence of another year of cruel imprisonment is a disgrace, but there must be some limits in the extent to which Britain is willing to go to secure her release. Paying the £400m is one of those red lines that cannot be crossed.
Since the court made its decision, Iran has been busy conducting several anti-Western, violent campaigns. Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has funded and supported terroristic proxies that launch attacks on Western targets, including plots to bomb European cities.
The IRGC was designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in April 2019. It spent much of that subsequent summer attacking and hijacking tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, including a UK-flagged vessel. In the years before, it carried out countless direct and indirect acts of destruction, many with Britain on the receiving end of its terror.
Its Quds Force supported militias targeting coalition troops throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until 2011. That year, members of the IRGC’s Basij unit attacked and ransacked the British Embassy in Tehran. In 2020, an Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hizbullah launched a rocket attack in Iraq, killing two US troops, a British soldier, and injuring 12 others.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment is specifically linked to the £400m that the clerical regime claims Britain owes Iran. But while Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight is almost unbearable – particularly for her young daughter Gabriella – those politicians suggesting Britain should stump up mustn't lose sight of the reality of Iran's regime.
Jeremy Hunt responded to yesterday's news by saying:
'Iran’s cruelty seems to know no bounds. Impossible to imagine what the family are going through today. Key question is why the IMS debt issue is still not settled given the UK accepts that it owes this money?'
His fellow former foreign secretary Jack Straw told Times Radio in March that to secure her release, 'my advice would be pay the money, if there’s any conceivable way.' Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the same program that it was 'absolutely right' that 'we should honour that debt'. He added:
'What we’ve said very clearly is that we comply with law and the rule of law...we should honour that debt and we should find ways to return it to Iran.'
Extraordinarily, he followed that statement by acknowledging that:
'Since then Iran has clearly indulged in hostage-taking diplomacy with a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, which makes life much harder for many people.'
Wallace should at least know the truth about Iran. He joined Jack Straw on a 2014 tour of Iran. Jeremy Corbyn was also part of the diplomatic cavalcade. And Wallace has boasted of visiting Iran 'more than any other Parliamentarian'; when Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari questioned him in 2014 about Iran, the responses were shocking.
Ahmari asked if the British government should demand an apology for the 2011 attack on its embassy, where offices were ransacked and multiple officials injured. Wallace responded that 'they have expressed regret' before referring to the Western-backed 1953 coup as a legitimate grievance.
Ahmari also challenged Straw — who was co-chairman of the All-Parliamentary Group on Iran, a position he shared with Wallace — on chants of 'Death to Britain' that were heard at weekly Friday prayers. He said:
'Do I approve such rhetoric? No, I don’t. It’s not a reason to not try and build a relationship. . . . Do I understand why they say it? Yes, because you have to understand Iran’s history. . . . They remember and will recite the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 and other humiliations by the UK or the US or both in great detail.'
Wallace went further. He argued that the Iranian regime can 'use its power for stability and peace' and 'earn a place at the table.' Ahmari asked if they had earned that place, Wallace responded:
'Well, has America, after the invasion of Iraq, earned the right to play a role in the Middle East — or Britain?'
British troops have died at the hands of the training, tactics, and equipment of Iranian-supported groups in the Middle East. And Wallace is now the minister that represents them. He must not lose sight of what Iran's regime stands for.
Even if it secures Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release, paying the £400m would signal to all regimes and tyrants around the world that Britain is willing to cough up the Danegeld. This would almost certainly put other Brits at risk. It could also lead to taxpayers' money trickling into evil hands, funding Tehran’s asymmetric warfare operations across the Middle East and those closer to home.
In September, Iran decided against bringing new charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe after a diplomatic outpouring. This latest sentence comes as Iranian nuclear deal talks resume this week. The timing is not coincidental: Iran is once again using its foreign-national prisoners as political pawns. But Downing Street must stand firm. After all, paying a bully to go away invites them to return another day.