Home » ‘We Should Pay Debt’: Jeremy Hunt Says £400m Owed To Iran Is Not Ransom Money

‘We Should Pay Debt’: Jeremy Hunt Says £400m Owed To Iran Is Not Ransom Money

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Practicalities, not principles, are holding back the payment of a £400m British debt to Iran, seen as a precondition of the release of British-Iranian dual nationals held in Tehran, the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

He said the payment would not be the equivalent of a ransom payment but the settlement of an outstanding debt. “We are a country that pays its debts,” he said, adding that the money could be paid through a humanitarian channel to avoid any sanctions. He also said he could not foresee any US objections.

Hunt was speaking as Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, came to the UK to meet Foreign Office officials as part of preparations for the resumption of talks in Vienna at the end of this month on the terms for the American return to the nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. The talks have been deferred since June after the Iranian presidential elections.

His visit comes as Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of one of the detained dual nationals, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, entered the 19th day of his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in an attempt to persuade it to pay the debt, which dates back to the mid-1970s.

Ratcliffe will meet a Foreign Office minister after the Bagheri visit.

Hunt said the principle of the payment was now resolved inside the government, claiming this had not been the case at the time he was foreign secretary in November 2018 and went to Tehran to try to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

He said it was possible the payment of the debt was “practically challenging”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are practical issues with sanctions, but those are things that you can sometimes get around, if you, for example, gave £400m 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.”

He also said the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had said the payment of the debt was a sovereign British decision.

Hunt said it was an advantage that Bagheri was a hardliner, as previously British diplomats had been speaking to moderates in the foreign ministry that were not responsible for the detention of British Iranian dual nationals.

Hunt added: “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 is not the only former Conservative minister privately urging the UK to make the payment. Campaigners for the dual nationals are deeply frustrated because they feel the principle of payment has been accepted inside government for more than a year, but since then there have been delays that the Foreign Office is not willing to discuss, leading the campaigners to believe that the UK allowed in the summer the release of British dual nationals to become intertwined with a wider prisoner swap with the Americans.

The campaign to release another detained British-Iranian dual national, Anoosheh Ashoori, said: “It took the Foreign Office over five years to acknowledge the link between Iranian hostages and the debt, and even longer time to acknowledge that it is a debt, not a ransom. We hope we are not looking to another five years before a way is found to settle the debt.”