LONDON (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that his remarks about a jailed aid worker in Iran could have been clearer, after opponents said his comments might provoke the Islamic Republic to hand the dual national a longer jail term.
As Prime Minister Theresa May heads towards a 2019 EU divorce that will shape Britain’s prosperity and global influence for generations, her minority government has stumbled into several controversies that risk undermining her remaining authority.
In the latest misstep, Johnson came under pressure to retract remarks made on Nov. 1 that Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching people journalism before her arrest in April 2016.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said Johnson’s comment was incorrect, while opposition British lawmakers said the remarks could land the aid worker a longer term in jail.
Johnson called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday to discuss the case, and made clear that he had been seeking to make the point that he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, a spokesman said.
“The UK government has no doubt that she was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year and that was the sole purpose of her visit,” Johnson told parliament.
“My point was that I disagreed with the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that I wanted to lend any credence to Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity,” he said.
“I accept that my remarks could have been clearer in that respect and I am glad to provide this clarification.”
Johnson said he would travel to Iran in the coming weeks and discuss all consular issues there, and would try to meet Zaghari-Ratcliffe while there.
May’s spokesman expressed confidence in Johnson, adding that the “he was doing a good job”.
Monique Villa, Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was a project manager in the media development team. Villa said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was not a journalist and had never trained journalists in Iran.
“We welcome UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s clarification of his comments,” Villa said. “It’s time now for the Foreign Secretary to meet Nazanin in jail.”
Johnson is not the only one distracted.
At the weekend, May’s deputy, Damian Green, denied an allegation made in The Sunday Times newspaper that police found pornography on one of his computers in the Houses of Parliament in 2008.
On Monday, international development minister Priti Patel apologized for failing to disclose meetings with senior Israeli officials during a private holiday.
Besides her government’s sometimes contradictory signals on Brexit, May has faced criticism from opponents for her handling of other issues: from a deadly apartment block fire in June to a sexual harassment scandal in parliament that prompted Michael Fallon, her loyal defence secretary, to resign.
“In my lifetime, I have never experienced a British government which seems to be so shambolic,” said Simon Hix, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.
“They are in the midst of one of the greatest challenges of the last 50 years – Brexit – and they have sexual harassment scandals in parliament, the Paradise Papers and then now on top of that the behaviour of May’s ministers.”
On Tuesday, Johnson came under pressure from opponents to retract his comments about Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year jail sentence after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment.
She was brought again into court on Saturday, three days after Johnson’s remarks, and accused by a judge of “spreading propaganda against the regime”.
The British Foreign Office quoted Zarif as saying that Johnson’s comments had nothing to do with the weekend court appearance.
The charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe were denied by her family and the Foundation, a charity organisation that operates independently of Reuters News.
“By suggesting Nazanin was in Iran ‘teaching people journalism’, Boris Johnson has endangered the cause to secure her release,” Tulip Siddiq, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, said.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Mike Collett-White