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Why the Chancellor is being blamed for Zaghari-Ratcliffe remaining in custody

Credit: PA

Ahead of the budget, the Chancellor is desperately short of friends. And his enemies are finding multiple reasons why the PM should dispense with his services.

The latest attack on him, from a plugged-in Tory MP, is for his “reluctance/refusal to hand over the money to Iran to free Nazanin”.

This is a reference to £450m the UK owes Iran for tanks we were paid to sell to Iran in the 1970s but never delivered.

It is widely thought that the Iranian authorities have signalled to the UK Foreign Office that they would release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe if the UK hands back that £450m.

And the foreign secretary, bruised by his damaging gaffe about what Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe had been doing in Iran, has himself sent out signals through the press that he thinks the money can be paid.

So it is interesting that MPs close to Johnson are telling me that Hammond is the obstacle to the money being transferred to Tehran.

And it would be exquisite for Johnson if the already unpopular Hammond could replace him as the lightning rod for discontent about the government’s failure to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being detained in Iran.

Is Hammond stopping the transfer of all that money?

I can see how it might look that way, but I don’t think he is.

The Treasury tells me the money is held by our courts, not the government, because it is a genuine legal debt to Iran.

And the money cannot be handed over because Iran’s “ministry of defence remains subject to EU sanctions”.

Which implies that unless and until the EU softens that part of the residual regime of sanctions against Iran, there is not a lot either Johnson or Hammond can do.

It is true that the Treasury is the one department of government with discretion over the interpretation of financial sanctions.

But can Hammond over-rule such an unambiguous embargo?

That seems implausible.

So I think if it becomes widely thought that Hammond is culpable for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remaining in captivity, that would be political misdirection, not his just deserts.