Boris Johnson's blunder on Nazanin is now one too many

Boris Johnson's blunder on Nazanin is now one too many
Comment: Boris Johnson just ran out of free passes, he has zero use and is a potential menace to the Middle East, writes Sophia Akram.
5 min read
07 Nov, 2017
Campaigners believe that Johnson may have placed Nazanin's life in further danger [Getty]
On 6 November, deeply troubling news emerged from the Ratcliffe family and the campaign to Free Nazanin.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian dual national, who has been languishing in an Iranian jail on trumped up charges since April 2016, was brought before notorious hardline Judge Salavati in a revolutionary court on 4 November.

Salavati told her she would face charges of "propaganda against the regime". Asked to sign documents confirming the charges, the same evidence from her previous trial was being used to potentially double her sentence.

The threat of this highly unlawful manoeuvre arose in October. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family and the UK government it wouldn't happen.

After having tread what the FCO ministers might call a careful diplomatic path, what led to these disastrous circumstances? Blundering Boris Johnson.

While actually making a statement that would be fully welcome - condemning Iran for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's detention, something the family and campaigners have been urging Johnson and other ministers to do since day one - Johnson said something completely stupid, false and down right detrimental:

"When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism as I understand it."

Read more: British-Iranian woman sentenced to five years on espionage charges

What led to these disastrous circumstances? Blundering Boris Johnson.

No. She was not. And everyone surrounding her campaign had to scramble to try and put the record straight. Unfortunately the Iranian judiciary jumped on Johnson's words and used them as confirmation that she had not been in Iran for a family holiday as claimed.

Free Nazanin Getty
A vigil was held for Nazanin in January [Getty]

A straight line between Britain's top diplomat and a diplomatic nightmare should be an untenable scenario.

We're all accustomed to Johnson's buffoon-like gaffes, which may get written off as 'Boris is Boris'; but this remark put a woman's freedom at stake.

Fellow Tory minister Liam Fox may have defended Johnson, but there should now be no doubt. Johnson just gave up his last free pass and his record is full of fouls.

The irony of Johnson

The irony of Johnson is that he says some actually insightful things with the least tact. His office then essentially clears up the mess with business as usual.

It was only recently that he caused uproar with his comments on how Libya could be the next Dubai, saying "The only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then they'll be there."

Johnson clarified that his remarks were in reference to dead Daesh fighters who had been booby-trapped. He was rebuked by Downing Street and put under fire for incredibly insensitive language.

Read more: Libya MPs demand apology from Johnson over Sirte comments

'BoJo' also went off script in 2016 to essentially say that Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East were waging their own proxy wars - using Islam for political gains.

That was never an unpopular understanding from outside of the establishment. But for the UK government, the foreign secretary potentially angered a key UK ally and emerging trade partner (one it desperately thinks it needs after Brexit).

Johnson once described the Balfour Declaration "an exquisite piece of foreign office fudgerama"

One wouldn't be surprised if the UK government didn't just double-down and offer the Saudis even more weapons in unconditional support for its military wagers in the Middle East, just to prove Johnson's remarks were not the official line.

Those are hypotheticals, of course, but arms and praise for the Kingdom remain in full throttle.

And then there's the Palestine-Israel question - the millstone of foreign policy in the Middle East.

Johnson once described the Balfour Declaration as "an exquisite piece of foreign office fudgerama". Later, nearing this year's anniversary - a centenary since Balfour's letter - Johnson penned an article describing his 'pride' for the Balfour Declaration. He also repeated the same dead policy suggestions that give Israel the continuing upper-hand in the region: The two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

The man, the enigma 

Now Johnson will travel to the US to meet Trump, and to Tehran to meet Iranian representatives.

Johnson's rise to foreign secretary is an enigma that wouldn't be out of place in the political drama 'House of Cards'. He certainly didn't get there through natural finesse and an aptitude for diplomacy.

Johnson may reportedly be going to the US in order to 'save' the Iran deal, but there's a risk that Johnson may just bungle this one as well. He has proved he has no conviction, and that is important.

Furthermore, he's proposed no real leadership or strategy for any of the big issues of the day. The Middle East aside, despite being a chief campaigner for the Leave the EU campaign, he doesn't even have a real role in Brexit.

Johnson will back the player where he has something to gain, despite that niggling voice in the back of his head. The result is a confusing message and no real detail of the facts. His recent example of both condemning Iran – good – while making false statements – very bad – is surely the last straw.

Johnson announced on Tuesday that he would fix the situation by visiting Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, having said his remarks should cause "no justified basis for further action".

While in Tehran, he must ensure the real facts are known, otherwise he is of no use whatsoever.

Worse still, he becomes a menace to the region. 

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff