13 Nov 2017
November 13, 2017
I wrote this last week. I’ve chatted to a few folk since then whose views, I think, are primarily led by the fact that they don’t believe Boris Johnson’s words on the subject could possibly be anything other than a balls-up. Well, I don’t disagree that BJ has ballsed-up big-time before by being too casual with words, and I’m not saying this whole thing isn’t messy. But I’m much more sure than even last week that Mrs Zachari Ratcliffe will be home in a few weeks and that Boris will be getting most of the credit.
People shouldn’t underestimate the significance of Mr ZR having travelled to Iran on an Iranian passport. If the UK didn’t allow dual citizenship, as many democracies don’t, but discovered that folk were routinely travelling between Pakistan and the UK using different passports each way, there’s really no doubt that such folk would be in hot water in the UK. The media would be all over it, too. I have no doubt that such a citizenship/passport breach would be used by the UK authorities to keep some folk in the cells from time to time.
And Priti Patel’s just been sacked from government for her ‘holiday’ in Israel. That’s not to suggest that Mrs ZR wasn’t having a holiday – I’m sure she was – it’s just to say that just because someone says they’re taking a holiday with the kids that doesn’t actually make it true.
Finally, most work of most spies is managing people who have access to new or novel information, or even just angles. Most spying’s just an extension of normal diplomacy work. Spying organisations get to know frequent travellers, businessfolk, journalists and people who get special access to communities in-country. That’s their job.
People able to enter communities as home citizens can get access to all sorts of useful information not available to outsiders. Who’s working where? Which civil servant next-door has moved jobs? Which scientist up the street is under pressure? Who’s having an affair with who? Who’s fed up? Who hates who? Even what seems like daft gossip can be useful information which can be ‘processed’ into proper intelligence by intelligence agencies. That’s one reason some countries don’t allow dual citizenship. It’s a question of where your loyalties lie.
All of these things, and others, add up to it being extremely foolhardy to travel to Iran on an Iranian passport if you’re a British citizen. You might think you’re not a spy, but as I said last week that’s in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t tell the Iranians your primary loyalty is to another state, and if you tell people in the UK anything at all you’ve had privileged access to in Iran as a citizen of that country, then you’re asking for the authorities to take a special interest in you. And if you’re involved in journalism and perhaps protests against the Iranian regime then obviously all the more so.
My own instinct is that regimes like Iran keep folk like Mrs ZR on their radar and if the time comes when they need a bit of human currency then they bag such folk on grounds which, for western democracies, are trickily close to legitimate. Then they barter for whatever it is they want. I think that’s what’s going on with Mrs ZR is at the moment.
Do we do the same? Probably not to the same degree, but I imagine we do indulge a bit too from time to time in one way or another……
However Boris Johnson’s handled it I think he knows the Iranian’s want, as part of a deal, some recognition that Mrs ZR was in the wrong by not telling Iran her first loyalty is to another state. It’s fine by them if we say they’ve blown it out of all proportion, but that acceptance by the UK means Iran isn’t North Korea by quite a long chalk. I think Michael Gove knows that too, by the way, which is why he said the other day that he had no idea why Mrs ZR was in Iran in spite of what we’re being told is the official line.
Mrs ZR’s done quite some time in jail. It’s a warning to people travelling on Iranian passports whose first loyalty might not be to Iran. Maybe people who do know they’re spying? And with Spain jailing people simply for allowing debates in devolved parliaments, and the UK not objecting, western democracies aren’t in an especially strong position to say that a year in jail is insanely out of order in Mrs ZR’s case.
I don’t doubt folk in the media know all this. And of course, if I’m wrong BJ will certainly have to resign – that’s not really a point of serious argument. If it’s true that a Foreign Secretary has truly kept a UK citizen in jail abroad then he’ll be forced out one way or another by the career diplomats. But I think those civil servants understand what’s going on now, even if it’s clumsy.
So BJ’s going to Tehran. If he does the Iranian government a special favour behind the scenes, he’ll fly Mrs ZR back with him first class and they’ll wave to the media as they get off the ‘plane.
Maybe more likely, she’ll follow him home a couple of weeks later. No more holidays on her Iranian passport, though. No more Iranian passport at all, I’d suggest.
Diplomatic protection, though? Think that one through. Pakistan demanding diplomatic protection for a British dual citizen in a UK jail suspected of a security offence? That’s what we’d be asking for. Does that sound like a winner?
All quite harsh and not especially fair. But the way it is.