On Thursday last week there was a very significant debate in the House of Lords regarding the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the fact that the Government needs to do a great deal more to get her released from Iran and returned to the UK. A significant number of people raised their concerns and a key theme from most of them included the issue that the Government must repay the £400m that our nation has had retained for more that 40 years. Indeed it has been implied by Iran that if we returned their money, her situation and that of others in their nation would be much easier. The Lord who began the debate is Ray Collins who was a Trade Unionist and who has been in the House of Lords for 10 years. His comment included the following words.
During the last debate on the detention of British nationals, noble Lords across the House raised the debt of £400 million which Britain owes Iran. The money was paid by Iran to the United Kingdom more than 40 years ago for 1,500 Chieftain tanks, which were never delivered. The Government have said that bank transfer transactions are not possible because of restrictions but, as we all know, if the Government had the will to settle the debt, one way or another, the payment would be made.
No one is suggesting that our Government should pay any sort of ransom. If the money is owed—and there is no question but that that is the case—the debt should be settled. When the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he made a promise to Richard Ratcliffe that the debt would be paid. Significantly, in 2014, the current Defence Secretary described the unpaid debt as “a sorry story”. He said that the whole issue had been,
“marred by double dealing and obfuscation.”
More recently, a number of distinguished former Foreign Secretaries—Conservative and Labour—have said that the debt should be paid. That is also the view of many international and legal commentators and it is the view of the Opposition as well. Jeremy Hunt, a former Foreign Secretary, said that it was not about paying a ransom; it was about the UK’s credibility and doing what is right.
In our last debate on this subject on 15 November 2021, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, insisted that
“it is not helpful in any way to connect wider bilateral issues with those arbitrarily detained in Iran.”
Does the Minister acknowledge that Nazanin and her family have been told on numerous occasions that payment of the £400 million IMS debt is key to her release? I hope he will respond to this.
Sadly the only response from the Minister who took part in the debate was Tariq Ahmad and all he said in response to these words from Ray Collins and indeed many more words from many more Peers was
I turn to the issue of the IMS debt raised by the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Wood, Lord Monks and Lord Purvis—the list goes on. Checking back, I think that every noble Lord—including the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Chakrabarti—raised it. I can clarify one thing. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that yes, to be clear, the UK accepts that this is a legal debt and it has to be paid. That has been very clear in our communications. We owe it to Iran and want to see it resolved.
Next comes the question of when. Various discussions are currently under way in this respect and noble Lords will appreciate that I am limited in what I can say at this juncture. However, I can assure noble Lords that discussions and debates that take place in your Lordships’ House are noted; if I am not wrong, this is the third occasion in the last month on which we have had a debate or Question on this important issue and that underlines the commitment to it shown by your Lordships’ House. We recognise that this issue needs to be resolved at the earliest opportunity.
There is little more I can add on the IMS debt.
One of the people who took part was the new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell who I have had contact with in the past when he was in a different role. What was very impressive was when he stated the following
I myself originally come from Iran. Born and brought up there, I left as a teenager during the Islamic Revolution, following difficult and traumatic circumstances. I was born into a Christian household, my father having been a convert from Islam to Christianity, in a small village in the centre of Iran. We were part of the tiny Anglican Church in Iran, which, when I was growing up in the 1970s, was made up primarily of converts and second- and third-generation Christians.
Our small community was hit hard when the revolution ushered in a period of unrest and chaos, and the church experienced a season of intense persecution. Properties were confiscated, financial assets were frozen and one of our clergy was murdered in his study. My father, who was by then bishop of the church, was briefly imprisoned before an attack on his life, which he survived but in which my mother was injured. In May 1980, my 24 year-old brother had his car ambushed on his way home from work. Two men got in next to him, and after a brief conversation witnessed by passers-by, he was shot in the head and died instantly. No arrests were ever made, no court case was followed and no explanation was offered for his murder. It was soon after this that I found myself in this country, originally with refugee status and eventually as a British citizen.
Later in his speech Stephen also spoke about the money
The British Government have acknowledged that this country owes a debt to Iran that is now 40 years overdue. As has already been said, this is not ransom money; it is a long-standing obligation. The payment of this debt would demonstrate something crucial about how Britain chooses to play her part in the world, with integrity and decency, honesty and trust- worthiness. If Britain fulfils her obligations, Iran too must act from the best of her traditions, which exemplify beauty, honour, truth and respect.
It seems vital for this money to be repaid and done so in the next few days!