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Trapped in Whitehall
Sensemaker audio

Trapped in Whitehall

Trapped in Whitehall

Since 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held hostage in Iran. And to understand why, you need to know about a long-forgotten tank deal, and a debt Britain is refusing to pay…

Claudia Willams, narrating:

Hello, I’m Claudia – and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, caught in the middle: the hostage who’s paying the price for a row between Britain and Iran.


There’s a street in London where the big government departments are based. It’s a quiet street. And in the winter, the sun never quite gets below the third floor. So it’s dark. And it’s chilly.

It’s just down the road from Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament are right around the corner. It screams power, and authority. 

The street is King Charles Street. There’s the Foreign Office on one side, and the Treasury on the other.

And about half way down the street, there are three tiny tents, some camping chairs, a lot of painted pebbles scattered around, and some hand-painted signs.

And a man on hunger strike. 

His name is Richard Ratcliffe.

“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.”

Richard Ratcliffe

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

“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.”

Richard Ratcliffe

The “agreement” is, in large part, a story about 1,500 tanks… tanks that Iran bought from the British government. Tanks that were never, in full, delivered. 

And it’s left Richard Ratcliffe, his wife Nazanin, and their seven-year old daughter Gabriella caught up in a colossal but largely hidden political problem.   

So the question is, why has the British government never paid a debt it owes Iran?


Let’s go back a bit… to Iran in 1979.  

Nazanin Zaghari is just a few months old and there’s chaos everywhere. A revolution is underway.  

Fleeing the country is the Shah or King of Iran.  Arriving is a man called Ayatollah Khomeini.  He has just flown back from exile in Paris. He’s both a religious and a political leader… and most important of all, he’s the figurehead of the Iranian Islamic revolution. 

“For many almost unknown outside of Iran just a few months ago, returned a hero. The man who from long distance had led the revolution to topple the Shah…”

ABC News

Just five days after Ayatollah steps off his plane, the British government cancels a deal it signed with the Shah. 

It was to supply 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 armoured vehicles to Iran. At the time, it was a contract worth around £300 million. And the Shah, oddly, had already paid every penny up front.

“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.”

Andrew Feinstein

But with the Middle East in turmoil, the collapsed tank deal didn’t get much attention. At least in the UK anyway.

In Iran, they knew they were owed the money. 

Cue, a decades-long stand-off. 


Fast forward to 2013.

“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…”

Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary

Iranians are given visas to come to London to try to resolve matters. But…

“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 visas.”

Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary

They’re arrested and shoved into a detention centre. And a couple of days later, they’re sent home. 

It’s a public humiliation for the Iranians and it triggers long-lasting consequences.


Which brings us to 2016. Nazanin Zaghari – or Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as she now is, having married a Brit, Richard Ratcliffe – is back in Tehran for the Iranian new year when she is taken hostage.

For the first 10 days, Richard Ratcliffe didn’t know where his wife was… until it slowly became apparent that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had taken her.

“We didn’t know why. It didn’t make any sense at all.”

Richard Ratcliffe

She’d been accused of spying. And careless comments from Boris Johnson in 2017, the then Foreign Secretary, saying she was “simply teaching people journalism”, enabled Tehran to claim she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime.”

So how is her case wrapped up in an arms deal signed in the seventies?


“The deals were negotiated in secret, as most of them still are today.”

Andrew Feinstein

That’s Andrew Feinstein, who has written extensively about the global trade in arms. 

Here’s his view on the UK-Iran tank deal…

“…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.”

Andrew Feinstein

Corruption on both sides or not, the British government has spent the best part of at least the last 20 years looking for ways not to pay.   

And if things aren’t complicated enough, there is the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Has Nazanin’s fate been caught up in the diplomatic stand-off between Tehran and those countries – the UK included – who are trying to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for lifting economic sanctions?

For Richard Ratcliffe, the problem is clear…

“… this is a simple transaction…”

Richard Ratcliffe

His wife has become a bargaining chip in a diplomatic row.

“… it’s all part of a wider jigsaw and it’s been muddled into stuff that it didn’t need to be… we’re now part of a $1 trillion problem.”

Richard Ratcliffe

However, there is a glimmer of hope. 

Boris Johnson is not opposed to paying the debt in principle. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, is happy to pay too.

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

Today’s story was written and produced by Ceri Thomas and Imy Harper.