Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been imprisoned in Iran for more than five years, has now endured the 19th day of his hunger strike in Westminster.
As he returned to his tent outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Thursday, his spirits appeared as low as they have been since Nazanin was first detained in 2016.
He described a meeting with a Foreign Office minister as “depressing” after telling him he was coming away from it with “no hope”.
Ratcliffe began his demonstration last month after his wife lost her latest appeal in Iran, saying his family is “caught in a dispute between two states”.
What has happened?
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, has been in custody in Iran since 2016 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
She was taking the couple’s daughter, Gabriella, to see her family when she was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail, spending four years in Evin Prison and one under house arrest.
According to her family, she was told by Iranian authorities that she was being detained because of the UK’s failure to pay an outstanding £400 million debt to Iran.
What’s the background to the debt?
The legal dispute dates back to the 1970s when the then-shah of Iran paid the UK £400 million for 1,500 Chieftain tanks.
Britain refused to deliver the tanks to the new Islamic Republic when the shah was toppled in 1979, but kept the cash despite British courts accepting it should be repaid.
The Foreign Office has previously said “legal discussions are ongoing” over the debt when reports from Iran claimed in May that Britain would pay the money to secure the release of Nazanin and other British nationals unfairly detained, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.
Is there political support?
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday described Iran as “an absolutely despicable regime that sponsors terrorism across the Middle East” – but said the UK should pay its debt to the country.
Speaking on the Today programme, Hunt said: “We have contracts with countries all over the world, some of them nicer, some of them nastier, and we are a country that pays our debts.
“If this was ransom money I would be saying we should not pay it, and I’ve said that to Richard, however painful that sounds, because you just encourage more hostage-taking.
“But this is not ransom money. This is a debt. An international court has said so. The defence secretary has said so.
“We should pay it because it is an irritant to relations and, whether or not it should be linked to Nazanin’s case, the Iranians certainly do make that linkage.”
Hunt said it is “practically challenging” to pay the money to Iran, adding: “There are practical issues with sanctions, but those are things that you can sometimes get around, if you, for example, gave £400 million worth of medicines or something like that.
“There are also political considerations, you know, the reactions of people like the United States, but given that President Obama did pay America’s debts to Iran in exactly the same situation, I think it’s unlikely that we would have the same objections from President Biden than we might have had from President Trump.”
Why was Thursday significant?
Ratcliffe’s meeting with minister James Cleverly followed talks between UK government officials and Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani.
Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Cleverly, Ratcliffe said: “If I’m honest, quite a depressing meeting. In terms of what we got told, well, not much.”
He said Cleverly wanted to emphasise that the meeting with the Iranian delegation had been “cordial”.
Ratcliffe added: “He’d raised Nazanin’s case, the case of the others (detainees). He said that was a good step. Couldn’t give a timeline on when things were going to move forwards.”
Was the debt with Iran raised?
Ratcliffe said the government “clammed up” and would not talk about the debt to Iran, adding: “We asked about the debt and they wouldn’t talk about it, I mean really clammed up.
“He (Cleverly) said ‘our position is well known’, and we said ‘well, look, frankly it’s not well known, you haven’t told us. I don’t know if you’ve told anyone else but we’ve never heard it’.”
Ratcliffe told reporters: “I had hoped there would have been some kind of a breakthrough and recognition in the meeting with Iran – maybe that will be happening away from us, but I don’t have any hopes.”
Ratcliffe said he was “pretty irritable” in the meeting.
“I said to him (Mr Cleverly) at the end, ‘I come away with no hope. I felt that in your strategy it’s all carrots to Iran. There’s no stick’.
“I can’t see what’s stopping them from continuing to play games with Nazanin.
“I think by being here, Nazanin is probably safe for a few weeks. But what’s to stop them threatening to put her in prison again?”
Will the hunger strike continue?
He told reporters he would continue his hunger strike outside the FCDO “this evening”, but said he was nearing the end of it “as a strategy”.
Asked if he was going to carry on, Ratcliffe said: “For this evening, yes.
“I think there’s a basic medical limit on how long you do a hunger strike for.
“I made a promise to Nazanin, I made a promise to my family, mum in particular, and to the family doctors, that I won’t take it too far.
“But yeah, I don’t think we walk away head held high feeling like it’s all been sorted.”
Asked how he would break the news to his daughter, Gabriella, he said: “Well, she probably doesn’t think in terms of ministerial meetings, she’s just asked when mummy’s coming home.
“I’m a little bit more deflated today than I was this time yesterday.”
Asked how he would give the news to his wife, he said: “I will probably wait a few hours and calm down.
“I think probably my expectations were higher than hers.”
He added: “I think things either move forwards or they move backwards. I don’t feel they moved forwards today. It may be that there are parts of the conversation I am not privy to and there are parts the minister shares down the line.”
What does the government say?
A Foreign Office spokesman said the Iranian deputy foreign minister met Cleverly and senior government officials, and Foreign Office representatives reiterated that Iran should take the opportunity to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) deal on the table.
They added: “The Iranian deputy foreign minister was also pressed on the need for Iran to urgently release all British nationals unfairly detained in Iran, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.
“Minister Cleverly met Richard Ratcliffe again today to reaffirm our commitment to reuniting his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with her family in the UK.
“The Foreign Secretary, minister Cleverly and the FCDO continue to work hard to secure the release of all those British nationals unfairly detained in Iran.”