Diplomatic Protection

Oliver Miles

The background to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a young mother imprisoned in Iran apparently for no good reason, though careless remarks by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove haven't helped – is not unusual, and not very favourable. Part of a diplomat’s job is to support British subjects who get into trouble abroad, including those who get into trouble with the law. But diplomats cannot intervene in foreign courts, any more than foreign governments can intervene in ours. I am no Iran expert, but the country has been the target of espionage, sabotage and even murder and it is no surprise if its vigilance sometimes appears like paranoia. Anglo-Iranian relations are poor; diplomatic relations have only recently been re-established; we do them no favours; they are unlikely to do us favours.

This case has attracted huge public interest, which may or may not be helpful – that is particularly difficult to judge. The family and their advisers have suggested that Zaghari-Ratcliffe should be given 'diplomatic protection', defined by the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind in the Guardian today as 'saying to Tehran that Britain's relations with Iran will be damaged if there is no early release. This would become a state-to-state issue, not just a consular one.' It's the first time I have ever heard of this idea, and I don't think much of it. (Richard Dalton, a former ambassador in Tehran, said on the Today programme this morning that 'the less debate about political ramification in the UK from now on, the better.') Who can say that the Iranians would be more likely to be flexible on a state-to-state issue? It is understandable that family and friends think that the more high-level public support Zaghari-Ratcliffe receives the better. But that may not be right. Often it is easier to persuade a foreign government to be flexible if there is no publicity. Often, but not always.

Johnson allowed himself to be drawn into agreeing with an MP who said in Parliament yesterday that this case 'should be our one and only priority and our one and only focus, in the government and in the House'. But, as he said, there are other difficult consular cases in Iran which have not been given publicity. Should they have lower priority? Not to mention other issues: war and peace and so on.

Diplomats don't take the Hippocratic oath but like doctors they should above all do no harm. I have on my own conscience a case many years ago in another country in which I petitioned that a sentence of flogging on a British subject should be cancelled. It was cancelled, commuted to a longer prison sentence, and the man committed suicide. Johnson and Gove have done harm, Johnson by saying that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalists, Gove by saying he did not know what she was doing. The government needs to be consistent, and what Johnson and Gove said undermines the important claim that she was simply in Iran on holiday.

It's a paradox that Johnson's reputation for inaccuracy and gaffes may be helpful in this case. Let us hope that the Iranian Embassy in London have reported that when he said she was teaching journalists, it was probably because he had not read his brief.

When I retired as ambassador to Greece in 1996, relations between Greece and Turkey seemed to be irredeemably bad. Three years later earthquakes hit both countries, and the generous assistance each gave to the other transformed the relationship. Perhaps the best thing we could do for Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be to take a lead in offering assistance following the earthquake in Iran on Sunday.


  • 14 November 2017 at 5:53pm
    Stu Bry says:
    "Johnson and Gove have done harm, Johnson by saying that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalists, Gove by saying he did not know what she was doing. The government needs to be consistent, and what Johnson and Gove said undermines the important claim that she was simply in Iran on holiday."

    No one seems to be willing to consider that the reason no one from the Government will say that she wasn't working for them in Iran is because she was. Johnson was quite clear in the select committee and spoke very carefully during the emergency question to ensure that he didn't personally say that she wasn't working in Iran.

    The nature of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's employment has barely been mentioned but her job with Rueters Thompson involved working with UK government funded groups such as BBC Media Action, The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and The Westminister Consortium who support opposition groups in countries where the UK does not approve of the governing status quo (eg Iran but not Saudi Arabia). Reuters Thompson have been visible in the media but the other organisations have been entirely missing from the coverage.

    There has also bizarrely been no reporting of the details of what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was charged with or what the confession she signed stated. The reporting of this case has been very strange.

    • 14 November 2017 at 7:09pm
      LilyDame says: @ Stu Bry
      At last! I was beginning to wonder why no one is saying this. Except they can’t.

      It seems entirely obvious that there is some reason that these seasoned politicians are bumbling around unable to state unequivocally that Ms Z-R was there on holiday and only that.

      Boris obviously cocked up originally and shame on him - dear God that international diplomacy lies with him - but after that it would have been very easy to correct without all this ridiculous schoolboy obfuscation.

      Let’s hope this ship of fools doesn’t sink her chances of release.

    • 15 November 2017 at 12:33pm
      fbkun says: @ Stu Bry
      Oliver Miles doesn't write that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday. He writes that the UK government should be careful not to undermine the claim that she was. She may indeed very well have been working for the government, but the least that can be expected from Johnson and co. is that they don't harm her security now she's in custody.

    • 15 November 2017 at 2:04pm
      mototom says: @ fbkun
      It's not as if the UK has clean hands wrt its dealings with Iran - see LRB Vol. 39 No. 21 · 2 November 2017 pages 5-6 (

    • 15 November 2017 at 2:19pm
      mototom says: @ fbkun
      "It’s a paradox that Johnson’s reputation for inaccuracy and gaffes may be helpful in this case."

      No it isn't.

  • 14 November 2017 at 6:49pm
    Thomas says:
    The Thomson Reuters Foundation is hardly an illicit organisation. Not that I have any specific information, but there are plenty of people there who don't work in the field as journalist trainers, and I see no reason to disbelieve the clear statements that she was there to take her daughter to see her parents.

    It would be hard to go into detail about the charges she faces, given that those charges are, well, vague. But if you really want the details, they're here:

    • 14 November 2017 at 7:30pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Thomas
      The Amnesty document you link to does not include the charges. It includes 17 words from the trial and zero full sentences. It also doesn't make any reference to her confession.

      Thompson Reuters may not be an illicit organisation but it is funded by the UK state as part of our fabled "soft power". The Westminster Foundation For Democracy explicitly exists to effect regime change in foreign countries. The Prime Minister yesterday accused Russia of meddling in the EU Referendum, perhaps she should consider the actions and consequences of her own Government's influence abroad.

    • 29 November 2017 at 7:10am
      Joe says: @ Stu Bry
      Maybe I misunderstand you, but:

      She had been convicted of “membership of an illegal group”.

      I agree with you that Britain provokes countries such as Iran. But given the many real conspiracies of state-to-state dealings, it seems unhelpful to see conspiracy where none exists.

  • 14 November 2017 at 7:04pm
    Warren Franks says:
    Even if Diplomats were to take a Hippocratic Oath, too many would (probably) act like much of the medical establishment (in the USA): In their own self-interest, above that of the patient.

  • 14 November 2017 at 7:18pm
    PBL says:
    Brilliant comment by Oliver Miles. My eyes are now wide open. I realise the skills of diplomats. Let us hope they bear fruit for Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for the political interventions surely have not.

  • 14 November 2017 at 8:48pm
    jomellon says:
    It is clear that Iran is the object of intense secret service activity by the 'West'. This has included the assassinations.
    The Iranians obviously believe Mrs.Z-N was an intelligence 'asset', and reasonably fear the de-stabilisation of their country à la Chile or Ukraine: or indeed à la Iran 1953.
    One has to say: if Mrs.Z-N was working for MI6 - and no UK politician seems willing to say flat out she wasn't - then her incarceration is entirely reasonable.

  • 15 November 2017 at 9:39am
    Bill Gilmour says:
    I'm looking for a verifiable fact in the above comments. The only one I can see is - "It seems entirely obvious that there is some reason that these seasoned politicians are bumbling around . . . Yes, but what is the reason and is it any different from the reason, they have been bubbling in one case and prattling in the other, all of their political lives.

    I do not have any facts, however, I have noticed that new mums like to take their daughters home, to show off to their own Mum.

  • 15 November 2017 at 2:00pm
    xorg says:
    If Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was indeed working for MI6 one would have hoped that her employers and the Foreign Office might have done more to defend her and to secure her release. As I understand such matters, this would have been done quietly and without fuss, probably involving some quid pro quo. Perhaps something went terribly wrong, or perhaps she is completely innocent of the charges. But let's hope she hasn't been abandoned to her fate otherwise MI6 agents around the world, let alone ordinary UK citizens, might be wondering if the Foreign Office is worth the bother.

  • 15 November 2017 at 5:47pm
    Diplodoctus says:
    The idea that she can be sprung from prison by giving her diplomatic status is a terrible one which plays fast and loose with diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention. It would set a dreadful precedent by encouraging the Iranians to expect reciprocity should, for instance, an Iranian national be imprisoned for a crime in the UK. Let's not forget that the Iranian murderer of PC Yvonne Fletcher left the UK a free man thanks to his (genuine) diplomatic immunity.

    As I understand it, she is a dual national. The rule used to be simple. Dual nationals are not British in the country of their other nationality, and are not entitled to consular protection there. It is a pity that this clear rule is increasingly eroded by confused moral outrage whipped up by the media, both traditional and social.

    The most Boris should do is make strong representations on humanitarian grounds, in the hope that, once Iran has squeezed as much political mileage it can out of the affair, she will be quietly deported. My guess is that the prospects of that are quite high.

    • 21 November 2017 at 1:00pm
      jeremyminns says: @ Diplodoctus
      PC Fletcher was killed outside the Libyan, not the Iranian embassy.

    • 24 November 2017 at 4:46pm
      Diplodoctus says: @ jeremyminns
      My silly mistake: apologies to Iran! My point about immunity, however, still holds.

  • 16 November 2017 at 10:10am
    Dectora says:
    I am depressed to see that so many people seem to assume the worst about this young woman, thrown into a notorious prison on a ludicrous charge of attempting to overthrow the government of Iran, accompanied by a toddler. Post after post assumes that she must be working for MI6. I can only assume that you all read too much spy fiction.
    Have you all forgotten what an evil regime Iran has been since the 1979 revolution?She was taking her daughter to see her parents, as one person has pointed out, quite usual for a new mother.This is still a paranoid regime and someone overreacted. Then no one could step down and say that it was all a mistake. Johnson of course made matters worse.

    • 16 November 2017 at 11:33am
      mototom says: @ Dectora
      I think there is a strong possibility that you are right - though I do also think that Western interference in Iran over the decades has been a factor in how Iran now presents itself to the world.

      You must admit that there is a possibility that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe could have been in Iran for nefarious purposes and that the conduct of Johnson and Gove (and others) have done nothing to make that possibility seem less likely. Indeed their behaviour (to this outsider at least) is bizarre and difficult to explain.

    • 16 November 2017 at 4:00pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Dectora
      "Have you all forgotten what an evil regime Iran has been since the 1979 revolution?"

      It's good to see someone is still using G.W Bush's rhetoric 16 years on.

      I don't assume that she was working for MI6 but I know for a fact she did work for "democracy strengthening" (which is a euphemism for regime change) organisations funded by the UK government. I also know that no one from the UK government will say that she was not working for them. I can also clearly see that there is a deliberate effort in the UK press not to present the charges or evidence against her to the public.

  • 18 November 2017 at 9:27am
    Dectora says:
    Ah! Just fancy that, I am using George Bush's rhetoric! as it happens 'evil regime' is the expression used by an Iranian friend, a left-wing Iranian political refugee. I suspect that Stu has never been to Iran or thought seriously of what it is like to live under clerical rule. Just to inform yourself you could read a few Amnesty International reports on Iran, or is that too right wing an organisation for you?

  • 29 November 2017 at 9:10am
    Agate says:
    When I read about this sort of issue I always remember the immortal words of Sir Humphrey in an episode of Yes Minister - that the public thinks that the Foreign Office et al is there to look after British subjects abroad. They're not. They're there to look after British interests, which is not the same thing at all.

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