What was on the agenda for British foreign secretary's Iran visit?

Boris Johnson becomes the first British foreign secretary to visit Iran since 2015.

al-monitor Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gives a speech at the Foreign Office in London, Dec. 7, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Victoria Jones.

Dec 11, 2017

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Iran on Dec. 10. Ahead of the trip, Johnson said that he would address British concerns over the imprisonment of dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested and sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is employed by Thomson Reuters Foundation, was charged with plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, a charge Johnson addressed before his visit when he said, “She was simply teaching people journalism.” Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family and employer say she was in Iran for a vacation. Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, downplayed that Johnson would address Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, tweeting Dec. 9 ahead of Johnson's trip, “There are a lot of speculations about the agenda of the visit of the UK Secretary Johnson to Tehran, but the two sides will surely best use of the time to discuss wide range of bilateral, regional and multilateral issues, particularly at this sensitive moment at the region.”

Johnson’s visit made the front pages of a number Iranian newspapers. Reformist newspapers and other newspapers that are aligned politically with the policies of the Hassan Rouhani administration focused on the potential of economic ties between Iran and Britain. Ali Asghar Farazi, Iran’s former ambassador to Hungary and Romania, wrote in Iran newspaper, which operates under the Rouhani administration, that economic relations between the two countries were of prime importance. He wrote that while the two countries have more potential for mutually beneficial economic and trade ties following the nuclear deal, Britain’s ties with the United States cast a shadow over the possibility of increasing those ties. Farazi wrote that any country that follows America’s lead on foreign policy has less potential for economic ties with Iran.

Newspapers opposed to the policies of the Rouhani administration were more cautious about Johnson’s intentions. Jafar Takbiri wrote in Javan newspaper, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, “It is not clear whether Britain will change and strengthen its ties to Iran or if it will continue its previous hostile policies.” Takbiri wrote that Johnson’s trip to Oman before coming to Tehran was meaningful for the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Oman has often acted as mediator between Iran and the West and was involved in the 2011 release of three American hikers. Takbiri speculated whether a similar deal is in the works for Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The article concluded, “Now we must wait to see what achievements Boris Johnson’s visit to Tehran had. Is the freedom of a spy the only plan for Johnson’s visit or were there instructions for other things?”

The Javan article is not the only one to refer to Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a spy. Hard-line Kayhan newspaper repeatedly called her a spy.

After Johnson’s visit, there was speculation that a second court date for additional charges had been postponed. Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, hailed the decision as the “first ripple of freedom.” However, an Iranian judiciary official denied that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had any court date for the day.

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