British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been forced to apologize for a gaffe that campaigners fear could worsen the situation for a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran.
Johnson told the British Parliament he was sorry for suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalists during a visit to the country in 2016, when she was arrested. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday, he said.
“That was the sole purpose of her visit,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday.
“I apologize to Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I inadvertently caused them any further anguish.”
Johnson had corrected his remarks to a British parliamentary committee last week. He originally said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalists in Iran, but he later clarified that she was in the country visiting relatives.
The main opposition Labour party said his “clarification” was insufficient and forced him to appear in the House of Commons on Monday.
Johnson apologized three times during the session over the gaffe – his most serious misstep yet as Foreign Secretary – as opposition MPs shot questions and criticism at him for his handling of the case.
“Of course I apologize for the distress, for the suffering that has been caused by the impression that I gave that the government believed, that I believed, that she was there in a professional capacity. I do apologize,” Johnson said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been in jail since she was detained at Tehran airport in April 2016, and there have been concerns that Johnson’s remarks may lead to an extension to her five-year sentence.
Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s constituency, told Sky News earlier that the jailed woman was “inconsolable” when she heard of Johnson’s initial remarks. Siddiq had heard from the woman’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, that she had been sobbing on the phone to him over the comments.
Theresa May’s latest woe
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and London Mayor Sadiq Khan are among several politicians who have called on Prime Minister Theresa May to sack Johnson.
Some MPs also suggested Monday he should resign.
Labour MP Paul Flynn described Johnson as “a joke” and suggested he be replaced by “a competent politician” who would not be ridiculed by other nations.
Hannah Bardell from the Scottish National Party said he should “reflect on his position,” while Johnson’s fellow Conservative MP Julian Lewis said it “has not been his finest hour.”
The blunder is the latest headache for Prime Minister May, who is increasingly being cast as a weak leader as her government fails to show progress on crucial Brexit talks and as sexual misconduct allegations tear through her administration and party.
The country’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, added fuel to the fire on Sunday when he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that he didn’t know what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran at the time of her arrest, despite the intense scrutiny Johnson’s remarks have brought the May government.
Gove said he would “take her husband’s assurance” that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday.
Labour MP Chris Bryant criticized the May government for failing to ensure all its members were on the same page in the case, describing it as a “complete mess.”