By Blog Writer Nick Jones
Boris Johnson is no stranger to controversy. Rather ironically, the foreign secretary is particularly prone to upsetting foreign countries: he’s called Commonwealth citizens “flag-waving piccaninnies”, labelled Papua New Guineans “cannibals”, and suggested that war-torn Sirte in Libya could be a haven for UK business once they “clear the dead bodies away”. His latest gaffe, involving an imprisoned British-Iranian woman, could be his worst yet - with potentially dire consequences.
During a trip to visit family in Iran last year, 38-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested alongside her 18-month-old daughter. Whilst the child was released to Iranian relatives, and remains with them, but her mother was handed a five-year prison sentence, charged with “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”. The charges were speculative to say the least. A non-media-based employee of the Thomas Reuters Foundation, Ratcliffe was accused by Iran of running an online BBC journalism course, with the aim of spreading propaganda against the state.
Demanding her immediate release, her husband, employer and Amnesty International have consistently emphasised that, contrary to Iran’s claims, Ratcliffe was merely holidaying in the country - which is where Johnson comes in.
Discussing the case at a parliamentary committee some two weeks ago, the foreign secretary erroneously repeated Iran’s central accusation, telling MPs that Ratcliffe had been “simply teaching people journalism”. A slip of the tongue, a blunder, a “misspeak” - call it what you will, Johnson’s words cannot be taken lightly. From the mouth of the United Kingdom’s most senior foreign official, the observation that Ratcliffe was training independent journalists was interpreted in heavily-repressed Iran as justification for her imprisonment.
With little room for dissent and national media largely regulated by the state, the civil liberties watchdog Freedom House classifies Iran as “not free”, writing that restrictions on speech are “vaguely defined” with “harsh criminal penalties”. Unsurprisingly then, Iranian state media quickly seized on Johnson’s “inadvertent confession”, claiming it as confirmation that Ratcliffe was acting against the state. On Saturday 4th November, Ratcliffe was summoned to an unscheduled court hearing in Tehran, where prosecutors cited the new “evidence” as cause for an increased jail term. Many now fear that her five-year sentence could be, at least, doubled - with Johnson to blame.
Despite immediate and stern condemnation from British politicians and the media, Johnson has refused to publicly retract his statement. Though he admits he “could have been clearer”, he maintains that he was merely emphasising the absurdity of Iran’s justice system, and that his comments had no discernible impact on her situation. Michael Gove has since also landed himself in hot water after stating that he didn't know what Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran in an interview on the Andrew Marr show.
The consequences of Johnson’s comments could be felt on two levels. Diplomatically, with President Trump seemingly set on derailing the landmark nuclear deal, which in 2015 lifted Western sanctions against Tehran and soothed hostilities, now is not the time for the United States’ strongest ally to be upsetting Iran. Moreover, on a human level, a young mother’s life is in danger. Should Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence be worsened, Boris Johnson will have an awful lot to answer for.
When the suffocation of free speech is added to the history of tense relations between Iran and the West, Ratcliffe’s situation and Johnson’s handling of it have all the ingredients of a diplomatic crisis and a provocation of an authoritarian regime.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Owen Bowcott and Sam Jones, Johnson's 'piccaninnies' apology, The Guardian, 23 January 2008
- Neil Tweedie, Boris in hot water over cannibalism in Papua, The Telegraph, 9 September 2006
- Rowena Mason and Patrick Wintour, No 10 rebukes Boris Johnson over Sirte 'dead bodies' comment, The Guardian, 4 October 2017
- New call for release of British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ahead of anniversary of arrest in Iran, Amnesty International, 1 April 2017
- Iran Profile, Freedom in the World 2017, Freedom House
- Jessica Elgot and Peter Walker, Boris Johnson remarks 'had no impact' on jailed British-Iranian woman, The Guardian, 7 November 2017
- Iran nuclear deal: Donald Trump 'decertifies' 2015 pact, Al Jazeera, 14 October 2017
- Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Boris Johnson ‘mistake’ could harm case for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, say family, The Guardian, 6 November 2017
- Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Gove under fire for comments, BBC, 12 November 2017
Image: Number 10 @Flickr