The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is expected to call the Iranian foreign minister on Tuesday as he comes under increasing pressure to retract remarks that campaigners believe could lead to a British-Iranian woman being jailed for five years.
Johnson’s suggestion that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was working as a journalist when she was arrested in Iran was cited as evidence that she was spreading “propaganda against the regime”, for which she faces the jail sentence. Her supporters believe the foreign secretary has damaged her defence that she was on holiday visiting family.
While Johnson has offered to call his Iranian counterpart to clarify the remarks campaigners say were misleading, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, called on him to go further and give a statement to parliament. A Labour source said the party expected various MPs to make applications for urgent questions on the matter on Tuesday.
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said Johnson should resign if his actions have damaged Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prospects of freedom.
The foreign secretary was also criticised by Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who accused him of being too hazy on the detail of his Foreign Office brief. He said Johnson had got it wrong and called on him to pay more attention to his job.
But Johnson’s cabinet colleague, the international trade secretary Liam Fox, who said “we all make slips of the tongue” and suggested that, despite the fears they could lead to a woman being jailed, Johnson’s remarks were “not a serious gaffe”.
The Foreign Office has declined to correct Johnson’s comments to a select committee last Wednesday, saying there was nothing in them to justify the response seen in Iran. However, it confirmed he did plan to address the matter in a call with Tehran’s foreign minister.
Besides a parliamentary statement, Ratcliffe said Johnson should follow through on his offer to visit his wife in prison and asked for the British embassy in Tehran to make a statement to the Iranian press making clear her innocence.
“I have promised Nazanin that it’s still possible they’ll be home for Christmas and I’m still battling on those terms … I don’t think this is anything to do with us. I don’t think it’s anything to do with Nazanin or anything to do with our campaign. There is an issue that, essentially, the Iranians are battling with the UK about and they are using Nazanin to punish,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is already serving a five-year jail term in Iran after being convicted of spying. Her family believed she was close to being released, but now fear she will be further detained.
Her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation – the charitable arm of the news agency – has backed up her defence and added its voice to calls for Johnson to row back from his remarks.
Despite Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s position, Johnson told the foreign affairs select committee last week that he believed she was “simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it”. He added: “Neither Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family has been informed about what crime she has actually committed. And that I find extraordinary, incredible.”
Soon afterwards, she was brought a court to face further accusations that she was spreading propaganda, with Johnson’s comments to the foreign affairs select committee cited as evidence against her.
Responding to criticism, the Foreign Office said: “Last week’s remarks by the foreign secretary provide no justifiable basis on which to bring any additional charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe,” and that he was planning to call his Iranian counterpart to “ensure his remarks are not misrepresented”.
In a letter to the foreign secretary, Thornberry said that although Johnson’s comment was not a deliberate error, it “reveals a fundamental lack of interest or concern for the details of Nazanin’s case and the consequences of your words”.
She told Johnson: “In the event that your actions have indeed cause irreparable harm to Nazanin’s prospects of freedom and result in her sentence being lengthened, I hope and trust that you will take full responsibility for that, in both a moral and political sense, and consider your position accordingly.”
The Conservative MP Anna Soubry also criticised Johnson:
Rifkind, a former foreign secretary, told the BBC: “Yes, he [Johnson] did get it wrong. And it wasn’t just a casual remark, it was in evidence to the foreign affairs select committee, so he must have had a pretty substantial brief which gave him all the background.
“Anyway, what he is now doing is exactly the right thing, as I understand it, he is proposing to call the foreign minister of Iran and put it straight and that’s what he should be doing and it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.”
He added: “Boris … should by now have absorbed the fact … that the detail is as important as the generality. And he has, on several occasions, not seemed to have remembered the detail that he should have been familiar with.”
Johnson was backed by Fox, who warned against worsening Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight for the sake of political “point-scoring”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast he said: “There is nothing that the foreign secretary has said that would give the Iranian regime any justification for increasing the length of sentence here.
“This is a regime that is acting in an absolutely appalling way. We have got to be very careful that in attempting to have a legitimate political debate, or even point-scoring in the United Kingdom, that we make life more difficult for someone who is being held abroad on the spurious and unacceptable grounds.”
In a separate interview with the Today programme, Fox said Johnson was guilty of no more than a slip of the tongue, adding: “We have got to be very careful that we are not overreacting to this.” And he told Sky News: “I don’t believe that it is a serious gaffe.”
Monique Villa, the Thomson Reuters foundation’s chief executive, said Johnson had made a “serious mistake”, adding there was a “direct correlation” between it and the further accusation against Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
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