Boris Johnson mistakes hurt Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, says her husband

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of the jailed Iranian-British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has gone further than before in accusing the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson of making mistakes and false promises that have enabled her Iranian jailers to discredit the case for his wife’s release.

For the first time, Ratcliffe said a story in the Sun newspaper, written on the day he met Johnson as foreign secretary, both gave him personally false hope and antagonised the Iranians.

The story claimed Johnson had won a Whitehall agreement to repay a £400m debt owed by the British government to the Iranians arising from the sale of Chieftain tanks in the 1970s.

He said the story turned out to be a bigger problem to her cause than an earlier mistake by Johnson at a foreign affairs select committee hearing at which he said Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalism in Tehran. Her family insist she was only on holiday.

Ratcliffe said the mistake made by Johnson at the select committee hearing is still being used by Iranian news outlets to justify laying a second set of charges against her.

Related: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband: I will join hunger strike for as long as I can

Ratcliffe’s allies say the select committee hearing may have been an off-the-cuff mistake, but the briefing of the Sun newspaper was a considered decision by a senior political figure in the foreign office that raised expectations in Tehran, but only served to deepen the sense of distrust of Johnson.

Ratcliffe, speaking on BBC Radio, said: “Promises have consequences. Perhaps the bigger problem was when the press was briefed the money was going to be paid. Expectations were raised. He [Johnson] said no stone was going to be left unturned and obviously that did not happen. She remains in prison and others have been arrested and so we have gone from ‘no stone unturned’ to ‘not my fault’.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for five years in Iran in 2016 after being convicted of spying, which she denies. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Johnson, in Monday evening’s BBC TV Conservative leadership debate, claimed his mistake at the select committee had made no difference, but he has never been asked whether he played a role in the briefing of the press about the repayment of the Chieftain tank debt.

The story in the Sun marked exclusive said Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond had authorised government lawyers to finally settle the 38-year-long dispute over a tank deal.

In fact resistance in Whitehall, both in the Ministry of Defence and the treasury, has left Iran still fighting in the courts last month to win back the money, as well as the outstanding interest.

Ratcliffe is currently on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London in solidarity with his wife who is herself on hunger strike in a Tehran jail over the continued threats to impose a second set of charges against her.

Ratcliffe accused Tehran of using her jailing as a pawn in a wider diplomatic battle with the UK both over the Chieftain tank debt and more broadly to press the UK to do more to support the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015.

Asked if Johnson was wrong to say his words at the select committee made no difference, he said: “Yes, of course they had consequences. The main difference they had is obviously they enabled a propaganda campaign that was run against Nazanin a couple of weeks afterwards accusing her of being a spy and that the foreign secretary had proved it. It has very traumatic consequences for her.

It was used to justify the second court case. It did not cause the second court case, but was used to justify it and has been used to discredit her ever since. A couple of weeks ago there was stuff on Press TV, an Iranian press outlet, again recycling his words, saying, listen, the foreign secretary confirmed she was there working when she was not.”

Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary and a rival for the tory leadership, refused to criticise Johnson, saying it would be incredibly unseemly for any kind of point scoring, adding, “My job is to get her out.”