My article for the New Statesman.
Nobody is laughing anymore.
In fact, many people have been tired of Boris Johnson for a while. His antics and incompetence while Mayor of London and now more errors as the highest diplomatic office holder in the UK are no longer acceptable.
His blunder over North London citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has now put a mother and wife’s freedom in danger.
Having been arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport following a trip to visit her parents, Nazanin has been detained since 3 April 2016. Transferred to an unknown location in Kerman Province, 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran, she was interrogated and held in solitary confinement for 46 days.
Her health is already deteriorating, with Amnesty International stating: “Prison is taking its toll on Nazanin. She suffers from severe arm, neck and back pain and needs urgent specialised medical care in hospital. In recent months, she has had very limited movement in her arms. The specialist who requested her hospitalisation warned that there is a risk that her right arm and hand will be permanently damaged if she doesn’t get the medical care she needs.”
She is now held by the Revolutionary Guard in Evin prison in Tehran, having suffered human rights abuses and been kept from her daughter. Sentenced to five years imprisonment for a fictitious crime, Nazanin and her family were already angry.
But as of Saturday, Nazanin’s freedom was put in further jeopardy when she was taken to an unscheduled court hearing in Tehran on charges of “propaganda against the regime” with the threat of five more years in prison.
This is thanks to an error of grave proportions by our Foreign Secretary, who stated when questioned by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Nazanin had been in Iran to “teach people journalism”.
Of course, Iran’s assertion that this is true or the conclusion that this meant Nazanin was scheming to bring down the Iranian regime is fantastical. And their human rights violations should be called out as grossly unacceptable.
But our Foreign Secretary and government can take some credit for this devastating situation. A Foreign Secretary endangering the citizens he is meant to protect, while we have an International Trade Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, who has told the BBC that this is not “a serious gaffe”.
We had hoped to get Nazanin home for Christmas, which now looks infinitely less likely. But, perhaps it’s not that “serious”.
Mr. Johnson is happy to put his name out there on articles, de-rail his boss’s Brexit strategy and enjoys his celebrity diplomat status. But as a man who wants to project himself, he should be aware that his words are unfortunately listened to.
To make such a momentous mistake is unforgivable. As Foreign Secretary, our public and international observers rightly expect an air of experience. As our government, we expect a duty of care and the security of our country’s people as the foremost task. Mr Johnson has failed in both.
I welcome Johnson’s clarification in the House of Commons today and welcome his telephone call to his Iranian counterpart. But he has failed to say two simple words: “I’m sorry.” We can only hope that no lasting damage has been done to Nazanin.
And what now do international observers expect of our foreign policy? Is our highest diplomat to be trusted on such an important stage? Why is Boris Johnson not in command of the facts of such a critical case?
Indeed, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP is well briefed on Nazanin’s case. Yet, he has in the matter of two sentences repeated the narrative of the Iranian government, undone the tireless work of Nazanin’s family and put her at further risk.
Even Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, has said that Johnson needed to get better at reading his briefs and sticking to the detail. It should be obvious that as Foreign Secretary words should be chosen carefully.
Nazanin’s case has been brought up time and time again to the government. Instead of a series of weak and flimsy responses, the Foreign Secretary should have already been making the firmest possible representations to his Iranian counterparts.
There is some hope this is forthcoming, given, in response, Johnson has announced he will visit Iran before the end of the year; after months and months and months of our government doing nothing to help a British national, they may be finally standing up for Nazanin.
It is a shame it has taken the risk of five more years in a notorious jail cell for the Foreign Secretary to think about doing his job.