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Sensemaker: Trapped in Whitehall

Sensemaker: Trapped in Whitehall

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Polish prime minister described Belarus’ role in driving migrants to the border between the two countries as “terrorism”.
  • The Chinese Communist Party passed a “historical resolution”, just the third in its 100-year history, cementing Xi Jinping’s power and paving the way for a third term in office.
  • Curtis Means, born in Alabama at 21 weeks and one day, was named the world’s most premature baby to survive. He is now 16 months old and a healthy young boy.

Trapped in Whitehall

It’s Day 19, the better part of three weeks into Richard Ratcliffe’s hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Nineteen days out of about 2000 since she was taken hostage in Iran. 

For the great majority of those days, Richard and Nazanin have known that, for her to come home, the UK will have to settle a debt owed to Iran for 40 years for British tanks which were paid for but never delivered. Richard thinks the British government was ahead of them: the Foreign Office knew almost from the minute Nazanin was arrested that the tank debt was the issue.  

In Tortoise’s reporting this week we have discovered that:

  • There was a moment in late 2018 and early 2019 when a deal was close. The case for paying the debt had been made in writing in the Foreign Office, and the senior leadership of the department was solidly behind it. It was blocked, to the fury of the Foreign Office, by the Ministry of Defence under Gavin Williamson. 
  • The mechanism was to pay through goods in kind – probably medicines – to avoid breaching sanctions against Iran; and the Foreign Office was satisfied that a debt which had been due for decades could legitimately be seen as something other than a ransom payment.
  • Senior people in Whitehall who are immersed in Nazanin’s case believe now that the British government has taken a decision in principle that it will pay. Boris Johnson is strongly believed to be on board. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has been clear, publicly, that the debt is legitimate and should be honoured. Liz Truss’s position as a relatively new foreign secretary is less certain but there is optimism that she will reserve her hawkish instincts for other parts of the world. Being the foreign secretary who “brought Nazanin home” would give Liz Truss a warm glow which she doesn’t exude naturally.

Richard Ratcliffe’s fear now is that Nazanin’s case has got wrapped up in the business of trying to tempt Iran back into talks over its nuclear programme. The payment of the debt is one of a number of carrots which could be dangled, but that would condemn Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an unknown number of further days under house arrest in Tehran, or back in prison. 

If Britain stumped up now, Nazanin and the nuclear programme would be decoupled at a stroke. It wouldn’t be a bad look for an independent (Global) Britain. And Richard Ratcliffe is convinced she would be home very quickly.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

FW de Clerk
South Africa’s last apartheid president died after a battle with cancer at the age of 85. He was a controversial figure in South Africa. Many held him responsible for violence against Black South Africans, while others disliked him for helping end apartheid. In a speech to parliament on 2 February 1990, de Klerk announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years and that anti-apartheid political groups would no longer be banned. Mandela walked free nine days later. He was elected the country’s first Black president four years later when Black South Africans voted for the first time.

New things technology, science, engineering

Space launch
Nasa and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private rocket company, launched four astronauts into space. They’re expected to arrive at their destination, the International Space Station, this evening. The flight is the third “operational” space station crew sent to orbit aboard a SpaceX-built Dragon spacecraft since the end of the US space shuttle programme in 2011. The team, Crew 3, consists of three American astronauts and one from the European Space Agency. They’ll be welcomed at the space station by two cosmonauts, a Russian and a Belarusian, and an American astronaut. If only things were as harmonious down here on Earth.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Ebola vaccine
The first jab of a new Ebola vaccine developed by the University of Oxford begins its clinical trials today. While there are effective vaccines against the virus, which killed over 11,000 people in the 2014–16 West Africa outbreak and over 2,200 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2018 and 2020, they’ve only been approved for one of its four species. “The two species that we’re targeting in this vaccine have caused almost all of the outbreaks and deaths,” Dr Daniel Jenkin, principal investigator of the trial, told the Guardian. Successful trial results would be welcome: the virus kills half the people it infects.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Haiti water shortage
Water pumps in Haiti stopped running because of a petrol shortage caused by gangs blocking access roads to the country’s distribution terminals. The blockages also disrupted deliveries of bottled water. Haitians now have to rely on rainwater. “We have large infrastructures hijacked by armed groups,” Guito Edouard, head of Haiti’s Drinking Water Directorate, told the BBC. “We use various social strategies to explain to them that water is a public need. Some understand but others do not accept the message.” There are 162 active gangs in the country, comprising an estimated 3,000 gangsters. Since the president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in July they have challenged the state’s control of the country.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Musk tax
Elon Musk sold about $5 billion in Tesla shares over the past week, according to filings made public yesterday. The shares were stock options he had received as part of his compensation package. Musk framed the share sale in the context of a debate about how America’s richest individuals should be taxed. Many forsake salaries, avoiding income taxes and taking compensation in stock options which, if exercised, are taxed at a lower rate than income tax. Congress is considering a surtax on long-term capital gains. It would raise it from 23.8 to 31.8 per cent. That gave Musk an incentive to exercise his options before any change takes effect.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ceri Thomas

Paul Caruana Galizia

Edited and produced by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs Tom Pilston for Tortoise, Getty Images