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From the file

Nazanin: Trapped in Whitehall | How machinations and missteps over an unpaid debt have compounded the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanin: Trapped in Whitehall
Slow Newscast

Nazanin: Trapped in Whitehall

Nazanin: Trapped in Whitehall

Since 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held hostage in Iran. Her supporters recognise that the Iranian government must be held responsible for her ordeal, but missteps and machinations in London have ensured that it hasn’t been brought to a swift end


Transcript

Ceri Thomas, narrating: These bits of London where the big government departments are based – they’re a funny mix of places we know incredibly well, and backwaters where the real work gets done. 

This is King Charles Street. It’s one of the quiet spots. The next street up – just up there – is Downing Street – and the Houses of Parliament are right around the corner.

But this street – well, even though there are tourists everywhere round about, hardly any of them come down here. 

It’s got a security guard at the end, and those bollards which pop up and down to let official cars through. It looks as if you’re not allowed in, even though you are. And so – I guess – people don’t come in. 

When you’re in the street, it’s like being at the bottom of a canyon. You’ve got the Foreign Office on one side and the Treasury on the other. These great, weighty buildings. And they’re tall enough that, at this time of year, the sun never gets below the third floor. So down here on the street it’s dark, and it’s chilly. 

The whole street is designed to send a message. About power and authority. It tries to make you feel small – and, the truth is, it works.

And then, half way down, there’s a little scene which looks as if it’s been blown together by the wind. You know how there are some corners where litter and leaves collect and swirl around. It’s a bit like that.

Three tiny tents, some camping chairs, a lot of painted pebbles scattered around, loads of hallowe’en pumpkins on a wall, some hand-painted signs. 

And a man on hunger strike. Richard Ratcliffe. 

He’s here because his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held hostage in Iran for five and a half years. 

It’s the second hunger strike Richard’s done for Nazanin. He’s at pains to say that the first one was outside the Iranian Embassy in London. Nobody wants to excuse hostage-taking. And Iran takes hostages.

But he’s here – I mean here particularly – because he thinks if people inside these buildings had done the right thing twenty years ago, or ten years ago, his wife would never have been taken. And if they’d done the right thing two or three years ago she wouldn’t still be where she is now. 

I’m Ceri Thomas and in this week’s Slow Newscast, I’m on the trail of a mystery – the mystery of why the British government has never paid a debt it owes to Iran, when nearly everyone involved seems to say it should. And how Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still caught up in the machinations over it.

****

It’s half past eight in the morning. High above King Charles Street there’s a beautiful bright blue sky. But it’s very cold. And, irritatingly, just across the street – a long way out of reach – there’s one of those fierce, outdoor electric heaters keeping some security guards warm, but not us.

Ceri: It’s lovely to see people try to help us.

?: It’s a good exposure to human kindness. 

Ceri, narrating: People drop by all the time. Some MPs, a member of the House of Lords, an ex-ambassador or two, and a few quite senior people from the Foreign Office. They’re all friendly and supportive and keen to show it.

While Richard Ratcliffe and I are talking, I have this stray thought. It’s probably the sight of all these blank-faced Victorian buildings around us. And Richard almost literally banging his head against the wall of the Foreign Office. A little individual up against these mighty offices of state.

Ceri: I could imagine Charles Dickens writing about you. Like a sort of bleak house type of thing going on.

Richard: I hadn’t thought of myself as a Dickens character but who knows. We are camped in front of the Foreign Office’s door and the point of that is obviously quite simple. Everyone walking past sees us and we’re a visible eye sore. And we’re meant to be a shameful eye sore if I’m honest. Partly we chose here because we thought it’d be safe, I hadn’t appreciated it’s also pretty cold. The sun comes down to the third floor level but doesn’t come anywhere near ground level. And we are right in the heart of Westminster and there’s a park on one side and all sorts of grand buildings and clearly we’re a very different presence. I mean I look like a tramp at this point. I’ve got some scrubby tents here and lots of children’s directions behind us. I think the message that we’re trying to say is that this is an ordinary family, it’s an ordinary person held, and there’s obviously big grand politics and the buildings represent that big grand politics.  But you shouldn’t let ordinary families become collateral damage in those grand schemes.

Ceri, narrating: So we go back to the beginning of Nazanin’s and now Richard’s story. 

When she’s back in Tehran for Iranian new year in April 2016 and about to fly home to London with her daughter Gabriella in her arms. Gabriella who’s not quite two at that stage. 

CLIP: 7’42 “So when she was very first arrested we were completely bewildered. She was taken on holiday, had been to Iran three times in that year, had been many times previously, all fine, was taken and disappeared. We had no contact, we had no idea what was going on. And the first visit she had was after 38 days.

Ceri: How long were you completely in the dark for?

Richard: It came in stages. We didn’t know where she was for about ten days. We didn’t know who’d got her for, which is a slightly different thing, for about three weeks. And by then we knew it was the revolutionary guard and she’d been taken miles away. We didn’t know why. It didn’t make any sense at all. So for this to suddenly happen, it just didn’t make any sense. I think in terms of it being explained to us, it was explained to her first, through kind of half suggestions than gradually clearer messages, the message that came to us from the interrogators, was listen, we’re holding you to make the British reach the agreement – if the British reach the agreement you’ll leave without charge. I passed that onto the Foreign Office, she then got charged, and then gradually it got clearer and clearer as to what it’s about.

Ceri, narrating: What it’s about – what it’s always been about, Richard thinks – is that debt. A debt which the British government owes to Iran for some tanks which Iran paid for way back in the late 1970s but Britain never delivered. 

That debt is known about. It’s not new news, although it’s worth another look because it’s a fascinating story in its own right. But it’s not the real puzzle here. 

The real puzzle is what on earth has got in the way of the British government paying it. Not for a month or two. Not a year or two. But at least 20 years.

I don’t want to turn this into an astrology podcast – I’ve got a feeling that market might be quite well catered-for – but sometimes the stars do seem to line up in a particular way.

Nazanin Zaghari was born in Iran on Boxing Day 1978. There was already chaos all around her – a revolution in progress. And thirty seven days later two events started playing out which are still shaping her life today. 

On the first of February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini flew back to Iran in triumph from his exile in Paris. The Iranian Islamic revolution had a form and a figurehead.

Five days after the Ayatollah got off the plane – on February 6th 1979 – the British government cancelled a deal it had signed with the Shah of Iran – the Shah who was enjoying his own taste of life in exile (because he fled the country before the Ayatollah arrived) – to supply 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 armoured vehicles. 

When the deal was cancelled only 185 of the tanks had been handed over. 

At the time, the whole contract was worth something like three hundred million pounds. And there was something very odd about the way it was structured. The Shah had paid every penny of it up front. 

Not surprisingly, with the whole Middle East in turmoil after the Iranian Revolution, binning the tank deal didn’t get a lot of attention. A Conservative MP called Teddy Taylor – who was always slightly eccentric and always very much in favour of selling things to Iran – brought it up in the House of Commons. But the newspapers mostly had other fish to fry.

Years later in 2016, in those first months after Nazanin was taken hostage, Richard was blissfully unaware of all this. He was married to an Iranian woman, and starting to get to know the country, but he wasn’t a student of Iranian politics or its history with Britain. The tank deal wasn’t on his radar at all.

Richard: No. I say next to nothing, it was actually nothing

Ceri, narrating: But obviously, it was time to learn.

Richard: But in terms of us digging into it, it was probably only after Boris Johnson failed, so went to Tehran, didn’t deliver on the debt, more people were taken and so on, that I then thought okay we need to understand this more. Simple politics would be, you’d sort it at that point. And the fact that it wasn’t, what are we missing here. So we started to dig in, find old arms trade experts, people who’d written about it. It’s a different world but there are people that follow the arms trade, normally fairly sceptical of its benefits.

Andrew Feinstein: The deals were negotiated in secret, as most of them still are today.    

Ceri, narrating: This is Andrew Feinstein. He was an MP for the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, in South Africa 25 years ago. Then later he wrote a book called The Shadow World about the arms trade. 

He probably knows as much as anyone about the tank deal between Britain and Iran – and, actually, how that whole world worked back in the mid and late-1970s. 

Andrew: There were particular countries which were notorious for this at the time. The Shah’s regime in Iran was certainly one of them. The Shah was an enormously wealthy individual and he didn’t procure that wealth through his state salary. He procured that wealth by, when you are a despotic ruler you get a cut of every transaction that the state does. And that was particularly the case with arms deals, one because of the size of the deals, quite obviously, and two because it was accepted in the sector that the Shah’s minions would not have felt in any way embarrassed to simply ask for vast sums of money. And I must say the regional as a whole, the Middle East and the near east, were and still are the centre point of the deepest and most profound corruption in the arms trade.

Ceri, narrating: That’s the general picture. On the specifics of the Chieftain tank deal:

Andrew: I have not seen any documentary evidence of corruption in the Chieftain tank deals and I’m very loath to call out corruption unless I’ve seen documentary evidence. But at the same time the entire meilleure, the entire context within which these deals took place, raises so many red flags that as an anti corruption investigator, simply looking at the context, I would say to myself that there’s an incredibly high chance, and we’re talking sort of 95% chance that there would’ve been corruption in the deal. What I have heard informally from people who were involved directly and indirectly in aspects of the deal, that there was definitely corruption in the deal. But I cannot say definitively that there was because I don’t have documentary proof of that.

Ceri, narrating: As the Islamic Revolution swept through Iran, anyone who knew anything about the Chieftain deal would have kept his head down or risked losing it. And the new guys in charge? Well, it takes a while.

Andrew: What happens is the post revolutionary regime as you say takes a while to find its feet. To get a sense particularly of public finances. These are people, and I empathise to some extent having served in government, where none of us expected to be in government, so you don’t come with the expertise. And that was certainly the case of many of those involved in the revolution. And it took them a couple of years to get their head around the nature, and particularly the detail of Iranian public finances, and of course the Shah’s regime was remarkably unaccountable with virtually no transparency which is why corruption was so easy for his regime. But for those following him it made it incredibly difficult to establish what the state of public finances were. And also to establish things like a massive payment made for arms that never arrived. I mean that is going to be hidden in mountains and mountains of paperwork. So it takes them a bit of time to discover this. But then they uncover this and realise that they’ve paid a substantial amount of money for weaponry of which the vast majority has not been delivered. And so they’ve effectively paid for nothing, and they slowly start the process of trying to get that money back from the United Kingdom. And again that process goes through troughs and peaks, and I would imagine those troughs and peaks are probably parallel by the state of the finances of the regime in Iran. At various times they seem to be pushing far ahead, and other times they seem to forget about it for quite long periods of time.

Ceri, narrating: So Iran was on the hunt. They knew they were owed the money. And things were happening to add insult to injury. During the Iran-Iraq war, starting in 1981 – a war in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians lost their lives – Iran came to believe that some of the Chieftain tanks which had been made for them found their way to Iraq instead. 

It’s hard to establish for sure that it was literally the tanks that the Shah had ordered which went to Saddam Hussein, but in Iran it confirmed an impression that Britain was picking a side in a conflict where it was supposed to be neutral.

Andrew: Eventually the Iranian regime tries to simply engage with the British government, on the assumption that despite the fact that the British government has made no secret of its antipathy towards the Iranian regime. But then when they’re getting no meaningful reaction from the British state, they start to look at legal options and they go through a whole number of legal options and this is over a period of decades we’re now talking about. And eventually they start a process of agreed international arbitration which they do in Holland

Ceri: So the British government agrees to take part in that?

Andrew: The British government agrees to participate in the arbitration and one of the key elements of arbitration is, and we see this around arms deals disputes quite frequently where they go the route of arbitration and one of the reasons they do that is because far less is revealed in arbitration than is revealed in a court case. So when you’re dealing with things that you’re not particularly proud of, be it corruption, be it illicit dimensions of foreign policy, you’d far rather have that done secretly than in a public legal process. But what happens in these arbitrations is that both sides have to agree to abide by the ruling of the arbitration process. And in this instance the arbitration comes to the conclusion that the debt is indeed owed by the United Kingdom to Iran and arbitration process goes a step further and actually identifies the figure of that debt because obviously the issue of interest over these now decades is going to be an issue of dispute. So both the fact that Britain owes the money and the amount of money owed by Britain is determined by the arbitration process and in good faith. That is the point in which the British government which has, it should be noted, put this money aside for this purpose, that is the point it should be paying the money over to Iran.

Ceri, narrating: It’s worth pausing here for a moment. Because it’s an important moment in this whole story. The British government has agreed to binding arbitration at the International Court of Arbitration in Holland, and the court has come down on Iran’s side – so clearly on that side that it orders the UK to pay the Iranian ministry of defence’s legal costs of more than 3 million dollars as well as the debt. 

And what the British government does then, is to start looking for ways not to pay. 

But while it’s doing that, so that it doesn’t shred its reputation as a law-abiding country, the UK has to ‘put to one side’ the money that the court found it owed. 

So that’s what it does in December 2002. It puts 382 and a half million pounds into a special account. And that money still sits there. Except today – because it’s been getting interest – it’s more like £500 million pounds. 

Half a billion pounds ring-fenced specifically to pay a debt that the UK has spent the last 20 years not paying. It’s hard to get your head around.

And 2002 is also a moment when the mystery of why that debt has never been paid starts to deepen. Because if you read what Jack Straw has written – Jack Straw who was Foreign Secretary at the time – or if you talk to him as I did last week, as he was getting ready to fly to Colin Powell’s funeral – none of this seems really to have come across his desk at the time. 

He says he wishes it had. Maybe it could all have been sorted. But you do have to wonder: who’s calling the shots if the Foreign Secretary doesn’t know what’s going on?

****

Nothing is ever straightforward in this story. Not the tank deal itself, and definitely not the big picture. But, after the UK started to look for ways not to pay the debt which the court of arbitration decided it owed, Iran – not surprisingly – lawyered-up.

A series of court cases kicked off. All behind closed doors, so that we didn’t really know about them at all until a couple of years ago, thanks to the Sunday Times

How many cases? How much they cost? All that is still really unknown. But a lot. The best guesstimate I’ve heard is at least a million pounds a year, every year, in lawyers’ fees, paid by the British taxpayer.

And meanwhile, some bigger storm clouds were gathering – things which made it more difficult for Britain to pay a debt to Iran even if it wanted to. First, there were UN sanctions in 2006 over Iran’s nuclear programme. And then…

Richard Ratcliffe: In fairness, in 2009 there was the Green Revolution in Iran, relations sour again, 2011, British Embassy storm, so this real kind of breakdown of relations on many levels. 2013, the Iranians send a delegation over to negotiate solving the debt and they get arrested at the airport, put in a detention centre, and then put back on a plane. 

Ceri: And do you think of that moment as a deliberate attempt by the British government to frustrate the whole process? 

Richard Ratcliffe: Yeah I think probably not the guys that issued the visas but the guys that said you know, put them in a detention centre. It’s a very clear slight, and it would have been experienced by the Iranians as a deliberate conspiracy I would think. It probably, you know so it would be seething resentment, going forwards. 

Ceri, narrating: So now we’re in 2013. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still free – she’s married to Richard by this point and it won’t be long before Gabriella is born – but it’s as if you can see what’s about to happen to them all, just over the horizon. 

And that strange incident which Richard mentioned is part of the build-up. It goes by relatively unnoticed at the time – in the UK anyway, but definitely not in Iran. 

A group of Iranians are given visas to come to London to try to get some movement on the tank debt. When they get to Heathrow – with their papers in order as far as we can tell – they’re arrested and shoved into a detention centre. Then a couple of days later they’re sent home.

Ben Wallace: However, fast forward to 2013 and Iranian officials who set out with UK visas, issued by the foreign office, come to this country to access the services of the commercial court. On landing at Heathrow, their passports are removed from them, their visas are revoked, and they are detained for a number of days into asylum centres, not a particularly British way to resolve an issue. Especially seeing as we had only recently issued their vias. 

Now that is a worrying sign. The Home Office to date has not been willing to give me a full explanation of the reasons behind that, however I’m sure that they would be careful because any court, any judge, would look very poorly on something that is not done without a valid reason as it involves access to legitimate justice and our courts.   

Ceri, narrating: Ben Wallace is a Conservative MP and not a renegade. He’s Defence Secretary now, so what he said in parliament then – that something about the way the Iranian delegation was treated didn’t smell right – is worth paying attention to. 

It’s the Home Office which handles immigration, of course. We’ve spoken to someone who was pretty senior in the Home Office at that time, and he told us he’s got no recollection of this incident. None at all.

But the Iranians still remember. For them it was a public humiliation that’s had long-lasting consequences.

And it’s the same mystery again. There are big things happening – important decisions being taken by someone in the British government – things which throw sand into the machinery which is trying to fix the tank debt – and who’s calling the shots?

****

After that group of frustrated and angry Iranians were sent home in 2013, in the 50-year span of the story of the tank debt, it’s only a short chapter or two before the third of April 2016 when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran. 

She was sentenced later that year to five years in prison. At the moment, she’s out of jail under house arrest. But her position is really precarious.   

Of course, I’ve talked to a whole bunch of people, trying to get my head round the story of the tank debt. A few former Foreign Secretaries, some officials, academics – and campaigners who are working with Richard Ratcliffe.

There’s one man who’s been particularly helpful – but also particularly concerned that I shouldn’t say who he is or what he used to do because he doesn’t want to do anything which might make Nazanin’s situation worse.

I’m going to call him Paul – which is not his real name – and all I can really say about him is that he was right at the heart of things in and around government in the years after 2016.

Paul is a very solid citizen of the UK. He believes in British values; he’s not a conspiracy theorist in any shape or form. And when I went to him with my question – why has the British government never paid the debt to Iran? – the first thing he said to me was “Well, good luck figuring that out!”.

He told me that what’s happened to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is “one of life’s absolute tragedies”. But could he explain it? No.  

I need to be fair to Paul’s position – so I should say that he was really concerned that I shouldn’t overlook the fact that the blame for Nazanin’s predicament sits with Iran. Nothing – nothing he’s seen in government or anywhere else – justifies hostage-taking.

But he’s deeply puzzled, and troubled actually, by Britain’s failure to pay the debt. 

First of all, he thinks it’s bad diplomacy. When the UK and other countries were leaning on Iran to stick to its agreements on nuclear processing, the Iranians could – and did – turn around and say, “Well, you don’t stick to the law. Why should we?”.

And Paul thought there were ways to make absolutely clear that Britain wasn’t paying a ransom. The problem was, he said, the longer things went on, the more it looked like one.

****

In 2018, a paper was written inside the Foreign Office, making the case that the debt needed to be paid. And could be. The Foreign Secretary certainly saw that paper. And it may or may not have got as far as Cabinet.

By late 2018/early 2019 Paul thought they were close to an agreement. The debt was going to be paid – not in cash because of sanctions, but through goods in kind. Probably medicines.

And this time – unusually – we do have a pretty good idea of why that plan didn’t come off. It was the Ministry of Defence that blocked it. Even goods in kind to an enemy power in the Middle East was a deal they wouldn’t stomach. 

It caused fury in the Foreign Office. Enough people have told me about a very undignified stand-up shouting match involving the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson and a Foreign Office minister that I’ve got no doubt it happened.

But yet again, the debt wasn’t paid. 

I asked Paul if, in the end, it might be accident not design. Just a series of miscalculations piling up on top of each other. 

He didn’t go for that.

We can all accept bungling, he said – things getting lost in the system. But for the life of him, he couldn’t see how if all the most important people in Her Majesty’s Government want something to happen, as British prime ministers, foreign secretaries and defence secretaries seem to have wanted the tank debt to be paid over the years, it doesn’t happen. For decades. 

“There’s something buried in the officialdom,” he said. “Something I don’t understand.”

****

Andrew Feinstein: I’ll pop in and see him either tomorrow or Friday but in the texts messages I’ve been getting he seems in good spirits. It’s something I don’t think I could do I must say. It’s quite remarkable but what the two of them have gone through, it does make you realise you know, I served in government at a very unique time because it was just after the ’94 elections and everything. And there were a huge number of people who just weren’t conventional politicians. Of course we discovered there were a lot who were but it just, it does bring home to me, both about senior politicians and about senior bureaucrats. It’s just how heartless they can be. And how they almost sociopathically cut themselves off from the real consequences of either their decisions or their failures to act.

Richard Ratcliffe: I don’t think there’s a legal problem, I don’t think there’s a technical problem, I think there’s a political problem. 

Ceri: So the political problem is often expressed that the MoD, whoever’s there, doesn’t want to give a lot of hard cash to a power they regard as an enemy in the Middle East?

Richard Ratcliffe: Yeah so it’s actually gone in phases. At the beginning the Treasury was blamed, so when Boris Johsnon was Foreign Secretary, the Treasury were the bad guys and they were the ones blocking it, when Jeremy Hunt was Foreign Secretary the MoD were the bad guys and they were the ones blocking it for exactly those reasons because it would give bad guys money and they would do bad things with it. 

Which is all well and good except they’d done plenty of other settlements with Iran, giving the same bad guys money so this particular pot of money is no more toxic than any other pot of money. Money is fungible. I don’t see their argument these days. The argument I see in newspapers and given to ministers is more of a, well it’s the Americans who wouldn’t want it and we wouldn’t want to, you know… my sense of it is those are all a bit straw men, my sense of it is, there’s obviously a long term resistance that I don’t know.

Why it wasn’t paid for 38 years before we came along I’m not sure. It’s a different call to not pay it when your citizen is being held hostage but it’s presumably those reasons still exist. But it feels like there’s an aspiration from the UK, to bring Iran back to the nuclear deal and to bring America back to the nuclear deal.

And the… my sense is that essentially in a perverse way, Nazanin has become an asset to incentivise Iran to come back to the table so if you know, you were engaged in negotiations, if you get to this point and it goes to them, all this good stuff can happen and that’s the essentially fight behind closed doors we’ve been having. So this is a simple transaction. They’ve been using her as a bargaining chip in a very cynical way for five and a half years but rather than address that transaction, and address its moral hazards, you’ve diverted us into your own agenda. 

Ceri: Yeah. But isn’t that even more terrifying in a way because you’re sitting here hoping that if the tank deal is sorted, Nazanin comes home, the problem you’ve just mentioned to me is that maybe there’s another thing.

Richard Ratcliffe: Well I think, no I think it’s still true that if the tank gets sorted she’ll still come home. I think it’s just the tank debt won’t be sorted, it’s all part of a wider jigsaw and it’s been muddled into stuff that it didn’t need to be. We were part of a £400 million problem, we’re now part of a $1 trillion problem. I still think for us, you know the milestone is the debt being paid, and always has been. And in fairness to the revolutionary guard they are hard nosed but they run a business and so if you meet their terms, you get delivery.    

Ceri, narrating: If one thing has changed in the debate about whether or not to settle the tank debt, at least it’s more public now. It came up in Parliament the week before last. That was a question from Jeremy Hunt – who was Foreign Secretary in 2019 when Paul thought a deal was within touching distance – to Liz Truss who’s Foreign Secretary now.

Jeremy Hunt: Can I warmly welcome my successor’s successor to her place although saying so makes me feel rather old and she will know that Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband has restarted his hunger strike this week, she’ll also know that Nazanin is not going to come home until we pay the debt that we owe Iran for the challenger tanks, that the Defence Secretary has accepted that we do owe Iran, so may I ask her, when are we going to repay that debt? And what will she do to make sure that hostage taking never pays going forwards? 

Speaker: Foreign Secretary…

Liz Truss: Well I have huge sympathy for Nazain and Riochard Ratcliffe and I’ve spoken to both of them about the terrible situation Nazanin faces and it is imperative that she’s not put back into jail in Iran. I am working as hard as I can both directly with the Iranian authorities and I had a meeting with the Iraninan ministers, as well as our international allies to bring Nazanin as well as the other UK detainees home.  

Ceri, narrating: You’re left with a weary, here-we-go-again feeling. But, to be fair to Liz Truss, she was answering on the hoof. So it’s hard to know how much to read into a bog-standard answer to what she would have known was a tricky question. 

So then there’s the bigger picture. 

Everyone you talk to says Boris Johnson is not opposed to paying the debt. Back when he was Foreign Secretary there were some reports that he’d started to make arrangements to get it paid.

The Defence Secretary – Ben Wallace – who smelled a rat when the Iranian delegation was expelled in 2013. He’s happy to pay.

If Liz Truss comes to the same conclusion, the three offices of state that matter in this equation will all be led by people who are willing to find a way to put the debt question to bed. 

Will that be enough? If it’s not – if again, mysteriously, the consent of all the top ministers who have a dog in the fight is not enough to allow that money which has been set aside for 20 years expressly for this purpose to be handed over – where do we begin to make sense of how Britain really works?

****

It’s late in the day now in King Charles Street. It’s about half past six. 

Some of Richard’s supporters are still turning up from time to time, with hot water and herbal tea and zero-calorie fizzy drinks that don’t break his hunger strike. 

People who are coming out of the Foreign Office now don’t seem quite as inclined to stop and chat as they did in the morning. They probably just want to get home. Ironically.

Before the hour changed, at this time of day there’d were shadows across the wall above me. But tonight they’ve already lengthened and gone. It’s very dark and extremely quiet.

Just across from me, Richard’s tent is glowing gently from the inside – from his little torch. But it’s not a strong enough light to cut through the blackness all around. 

****

But there’s something really unsettling about this part of London. Something about this implacable face it presents to the world.

It’s been instrumental in putting Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe through hell. And Richard and Gabriella through their own terrible misery. 

Maybe, somewhere in one of these buildings, someone has decided to do that. Decided that the price that family is paying is worth it somehow to keep buried whatever is “buried in the officialdom” about the Chieftain tank deal, as that person said to me.

Or maybe it’s all been a giant series of missteps and miscalculations. Not a decision at all, just one enormous, never-ending, bureaucratic mess.

It’s not much of a choice – cynicism or uselessness. And it’s frightening that even people who held some of the biggest offices in government don’t seem to know which it is. 

Ten yards away from me, Richard is still talking. Making his case in his quiet voice to anyone who’ll listen. 

I can’t help thinking that If I was him, I’d fill this street. I’d fill it with a howl of rage and anguish that would echo down this canyon. It would be pointless of course. But still – I don’t know how he doesn’t do it.