Mary Dejevsky

Why does Britain refuse to swap hostages?

Why does Britain refuse to swap hostages?
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, protesting outside the Iranian embassy in London (ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images)
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In the last days of November, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from Tehran’s Evin prison and flown back to a welcome in Australia. A dual Australian-UK national, she had served two years of a ten-year sentence for espionage — pronounced after a secret trial. She had been in Iran for a conference and was detained as she was about to leave. She had strongly protested her innocence.

So why, many Britons might ask, is the Australian-British academic suddenly free after two years in which the Iranian security services tried in vain to 'turn' her — while the UK-Iranian dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, remains under house arrest in Tehran, with the prospect of another trial and a return to prison. Employed by a media foundation in Oxford, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained during a visit to her parents four years ago, and — like Moore-Gilbert — rejects all suggestions of spying.

That 'engagement', however, was clarified by Iran’s state media, in a report on a prisoner exchange. 'An Iranian businessman and two Iranian citizens who were detained abroad on baseless charges,' it said, 'were exchanged for a dual-national spy named Kylie Moore-Gilbert...'

What we have here is classic diplomacy. Officially, Australia sacrifices nothing: the released Iranians had been held not in Australia, but in Thailand. There was no mention that they had been in prison on terrorism charges, and any third leg of the triangle — what Australia might have done for Thailand — remains under wraps. There followed some knee-jerk condemnation in Australia to the effect that 'we don’t deal with hostage-takers' and any swap 'will only encourage Iranian bad behaviour', but nothing that would reverse the result.

Unfortunately, the approach of successive UK governments to the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been almost the exact opposite of Australia’s with Moore-Gilbert. While Canberra loudly protested Moore-Gilbert’s innocence, even as it explored a deal on the side, the UK has seemed at times almost ambivalent about Zaghari-Ratcliffe (remember Boris Johnson’s Commons gaffe as foreign secretary), while trumpeting its principled refusal to do deals. Jeremy Hunt, when he succeeded Johnson at the foreign office, publicly dismissed what appeared to be the fleeting chance of a prisoner exchange as a 'vile' diplomatic ploy.

And while it is true that probably no western government would actually boast of negotiating with undesirable groups or regimes, the reality is that, in the end, most do. Some just accept the inevitable sooner than others and are less squeamish about admitting it. In Europe, France and Spain are among those known to pay, on occasion, for the release of their nationals. A favoured strategy is a multi-party exchange in which — as with Moore-Gilbert — precisely who has given precisely what can be blurred.

But the UK, like the US, has tended to resist such deals — with two undesirable effects. One is that hostages from these two countries may be summarily killed because their captors believe a deal will not happen or will be too costly. Another is that a long refusal to engage sours the atmosphere still further and almost guarantees that the terms will be worse than they might have been earlier on. Months, if not years, will have been lost — and maybe lives as well.

Nor, for all its high-flown words, is the UK as principled as it likes to think. Back in 1970, the UK captured the Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled, only to release her months later in exchange for hostages in another hijack. The UK, like the US, is routinely involved in spy swaps — the Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal (of Salisbury poisoning notoriety) had been released to the UK in 2010 as part of a wider US-Russia exchange. In that same year, UK officials facilitated the release of a British couple — the Chandlers — who had been kidnapped from their yacht by Somali pirates, though the ransom was raised privately. And who would want to argue that the top-secret links between John Major’s government and the IRA were a mistake, given the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, five years later?

Given this record, it seems perverse that the UK should be persisting with its hard line on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case — especially as the outlines of a deal have seemed obvious for a while — both to her family and to the UK government. It is a deal that would entail almost no serious concession by, or loss of face to, the UK.

The UK and Iran have been in dispute for decades over an order for Chieftain tanks placed by the then-Shah, but cancelled by the British after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran’s claim was upheld in international arbitration 12 years ago. In what was seen as a major advance, it was recognised last year by the current UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. But arguments about payment are still stuck in court.

Neither Jeremy Hunt, who retains an interest in the case, nor Wallace have made any explicit connection between the fate of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals detained in Iran. But that is not how these things are done. The point is that the twists and turns of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case tend to echo the meanderings of the UK court case, suggesting that the two are now linked. An agreement could set Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the others free, with the bonus that UK-Iranian relations could be re-set.

One obstacle, it is said, is that repayment could be seen as benefiting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is subject to international sanctions. A mooted compromise is that reimbursement could take the form of medical aid. To all appearances, there is a deal to be done. Yet it seems to be hobbled at every step by the UK’s loud insistence on principle and an inflexible refusal to deal. Now, following the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in a presumed Israeli strike, the opportunity could be lost again, as Iran threatens to punish what it sees as an attack approved by the West as a whole.

There are all sorts of reasons why Australia may have reached a deal to free one of its nationals when the UK has not. The fraught history of UK-Iran relations, the UK’s perceived closeness to the US, and Australia’s lesser international ambitions, among them. But another must surely be this country’s national sense of moral superiority which fuels an aversion to compromise. It might be in the UK’s own interests for that to change.