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25 Nov 2017 0:11
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  •   Home > News > International

    Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Boris Johnson apologises over slip-up, but he won't resign

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is resisting calls to resign over his controversial comments about a British-Iranian woman jailed in Iran over allegations she was spying and trying to overthrow the country's regime.

    "She was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it".

    As Boris Johnson quotes go, the one above is not particularly eye-catching. Nor is it the sort of comment you would immediately expect to further shake an already fragile Government.

    The uninitiated observer may even ask, what is all the fuss about?

    But those few words represent yet another diplomatic blunder by the UK Foreign Secretary — and it is one that some claim could see a British-Iranian mother languish for years longer in a Tehran prison.

    So what is all the fuss about?

    In April last year, British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran, accused of spying and trying to overthrow the country's regime.

    Her family maintains the purpose of her trip was to visit family, so her young daughter could meet her grandparents.

    On November 1, Mr Johnson told a parliamentary committee:

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

    "[Neither] Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family has been informed about what crime she has actually committed. And that I find extraordinary, incredible."

    Those remarks appeared to undermine her insistence that she was really on holiday.

    Days later, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was hauled back in front of an Iranian court to face fresh allegations. Her family now fears her five-year prison term could be increased to 10.

    Her family is devastated and her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, says his wife is now on the verge of a "nervous breakdown".

    Lumps have also been recently found in her breasts and there are concerns for her health.

    Has Boris Johnson tried to make amends?

    Mr Johnson first clarified his comments, telling parliament "the UK Government has no doubt she was on holiday".

    He said that he had been trying to make the point that training journalists should not be considered a crime, not to suggest that is what Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been doing.

    He acknowledged then that his wording could have been clearer.

    Overnight, he finally issued a full apology for the distress and suffering caused.

    "I acknowledge that the words I used were open to being misinterpreted and I apologise," he told the House of Commons. "I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I have inadvertently caused them any further anguish."

    Throughout, he has repeatedly condemned the way Iran is handling the case but Labour politicians are demanding the Foreign Secretary now be sacked.

    Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has declared Boris Johnson is "undermining our country through his incompetence".

    But Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family does not want him sacked

    Mr Johnson is going to visit Iran before the end of the year and could try to take Mr Ratcliffe with him.

    Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family wants the Government to grant her diplomatic protection, something that would escalate the consular matter and possibly allow for legal action.

    They're not backing calls for Mr Johnson to quit, saying "more instability" won't help.

    But the fragile state of the UK Government means he's likely to keep his job regardless.

    The Conservative administration recently lost two ministers: Michael Fallon quit amid a sexual harassment scandal and Priti Patel resigned after holding undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials, including one with the country's Prime Minister.

    For embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, it's already a struggle to keep her deeply divided team working together on a whole range of topics, particularly Brexit.

    Moving the Foreign Secretary could cause her even more grief.

    What does this mean for Boris Johnson in the long-run?

    Mr Johnson's ambition to become prime minister is well-known. He's considered a contender to replace Mrs May over the next few years.

    Mr Johnson's high-profile and strong grassroots support is in no small part due to his straight-talking style and colourful persona.

    Some of his previous controversial comments as Foreign Secretary, such as his blunt statement about Saudi Arabia puppeteering in the Middle East, were interpreted by supporters as a politician just telling how it is.

    But this controversy has the potential to be different and more damaging.

    Fewer people are likely to quickly forgive him, if a British citizen spends longer in an Iranian prison cell because of another "slip of the tongue".

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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