Boris Johnson’s Iran blunder is a case of diplomatic friendly fire – accidental but devastating. The facts are clear enough. By clumsily misspeaking at a select committee hearing last week, the foreign secretary may have worsened the fate of a British citizen – an innocent young mother – who is locked up in Tehran on spurious charges.
It’s not quite a resigning matter, but boy does it come close. Certainly it suggests a lazy and arrogant approach to detail. Here’s what he said:
Obviously, we will have to be very careful about this, because we want them to be released. I have raised this case many times now with Javad Zarif, my Iranian counterpart. When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit. I hope that a way forward can be found. I must say, I find it deeply depressing; I think it is totally contrary to the interests of the Iranian people for this to continue.
The Foreign Office says that Boris was trying to argue that ‘even the most extreme of unproven Iranian allegations’ were insufficient to detain Nazanin. Perhaps that what he intended to say. But the words that came out of his mouth had the opposite effect, implying that there might be some truth in the allegations – thereby pouring petrol on the flames. The Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights responded: ‘For months it was claimed that Nazanin is a British-Iranian charity worker who went to see her family when she was arrested. Mr Johnson’s statement has shed new light on the realities about Nazanin.’
This is the stuff of nightmares for anyone with Iranian relatives or friends. You’d hope the foreign secretary would know such a case inside-out and precisely how to avoid causing any more trouble. As a former foreign secretary, Sir Malcom Rifkind, said earlier today: ‘It wasn’t just a casual remark… he must have had a substantial brief which explained all the background.’ Sir Jack Straw, another former foreign secretary, put it more plainly: ‘Careless talk can cost lives.’ Even now, after a clarifying phone call with his Iranian counterpart today, it is not clear if Boris understands the gravity of what he got wrong. A Foreign Office spokesman has admitted only that he ‘could have been clearer’. You can say that again.
Obviously, it is not Boris’s fault that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was locked up the first place. The Iranian regime is responsible for that cruel injustice, for depriving a young girl of her mother and a husband of his wife. But it is crucial to remember how Iranians see us. As David Blair – formerly of the Telegraph, now Boris’s speechwriter – has written, Britain is viewed from Tehran as ‘monstrously cunning, implacably ruthless – and possessed of almost magical power’.
Iranians tend to seize on conspiracy theory and are far quicker to embrace it than the truth, especially when it involves Britain, or the ‘old fox’ as we are known in Tehran. The regime will use any excuse to keep Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe locked up and used as a political pawn for longer. And Boris has just given them another big excuse, when he ought to have avoided the topic entirely. It’s an unforgivably careless blunder.