The Boris Johnson angle to the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case may have piqued domestic interest, but we should not believe he is the only villain here, writes Robert Philpot

Yesterday, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent her 600th day imprisoned in Iran on trumped up charges of spying.

Her already desperate plight – separated from her husband and three year old daughter, she is suffering advanced depression, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder – has been worsened by the man whose job it is to protect her, and all British citizens overseas: Boris Johnson.

Having blundered three weeks ago and told a parliamentary committee – wrongly – that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was ‘training journalists’ in Iran, the foreign secretary then refused to correct, and apologise for, his terrible error, even when Tehran used his words to threaten that they would double their captive’s five-year sentence.

A man less vain, arrogant and boorish than Johnson would have resigned. A prime minister who put the interests of the country above the internal politics of the Conservative party would never have appointed him to high office in the first place, let alone allowed him to remain in his post when his unsuitability for the role was evident to all.

None of this should, however, detract from the fact that Iran is a rogue state, holding a British citizen hostage. For these international bandits, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention serves two purposes.

First, the ayatollahs hope to use Johnson’s visit to the country in the next few weeks to extract a ransom from Britain. Last year, the Barack Obama administration bought the freedom of a Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, who like Zaghari-Ratcliffe, holds dual Iranian nationality for the princely sum of $400m. Already, there is a suspicion that Tehran is eyeing a £450m sum it believes the United Kingdom owes it.

Second, and perhaps more important, by holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe – who used to work for the BBC World Service Trust and is now employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation – on evidence that is clearly utterly manufactured, Iran is continuing its war on journalism and free speech.

The Islamic republic has long been one of the world’s top jailers of journalists. ‘News and analysis are heavily censored,’ suggests Freedom House’s latest report, ‘while critics and opposition members are rarely, if ever, given a platform on state-controlled television, which remains a major source of information for many Iranians.’ Satellite dishes are banned, Persian-language broadcasts from outside the country are regularly jammed, and international websites ‘filtered’.

Even when Iranian journalists have fled abroad to escape the kosh of the Revolutionary Guards, the regime continues to intimidate them. Earlier this year it seized the Iranian assets of over 150 contributors to the BBC Persian service.

Amid the justifiable anger and scorn at Johnson’s behaviour, therefore, let us also not forget who the true villains in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are.

Lend a hand

Well done to former frontbencher Ian Murray on his amendment to the European Union (withdrawal) bill aimed at keeping the door open to Britain remaining in the customs union after Brexit and the 29 Labour members of parliament, two Tories and assorted Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists who voted for it. As Murray wrote after his defeat, the government claims to want ‘frictionless and seamless trade’ trade with the rest of the EU, and yet it’s busily planning to impose tariffs after March 2019 and determined to rule out the  UK staying in the customs union.

None of this is surprising: the only principle governing Britain’s approach is Theresa May’s desire to keep her own job by appeasing the ‘no deal’ fanatics on her backbenches. What is more perplexing though is why – led by shadow chancellor John McDonnell and international trade secretary Barry Gardiner – 18 Labour MPs trooped into the lobbies alongside Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson to vote Murray’s amendment down.

It is almost as if some in the Labour leadership are all too happy to lend the hard Brexiteers a helping hand.

Reason to be merry

Thanks to Chris Hanretty, professor of politics at Royal Holloway, for informing us this week that it is now impossible for another general election to be called in 2017. Parliament has to be dissolved 25 working days before an election and Wednesday was 25 working days before Friday 29 December. Whatever our politics, that is surely news that we can all celebrate.


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot