Is It Too Late for Boris Johnson to Say Sorry?

Sorry seems to be the hardest word—especially if your name is Boris Johnson.

On Monday, the British foreign secretary made a second attempt at apologizing for comments he made about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national currently serving a five-year sentence as a political prisoner in Tehran. Johnson had claimed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching journalism” when she was arrested in 2016 for allegedly plotting to “topple” the Iranian regime. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, had insisted along with her employer that she was in Iran on vacation; Iranian authorities seized on Johnson’s comments as evidence she was in the country for “anything but a holiday.” They have threatened Zaghari-Ratcliffe with new charges of spreading “propaganda against the regime,” which carries an additional five-year sentence.

“The British government has no doubt that Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday and that was the sole purpose of her visit,” Johnson said Monday. “I apologize to Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I had inadvertently caused them any further anguish.”

Johnson’s original response to the gaffe—arguably his most serious diplomatic blunder since taking on the role of foreign secretary in July 2016—was less apologetic. After facing backlash from fellow lawmakers and multiple calls to resign, Johnson conceded last week that his comments about Zaghari-Ratcliffe “could have been clearer,” though he stopped short of retracting them altogether. “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 told lawmakers in the House of Commons. It was only after renewed calls for his dismissal, including appeals for Prime Minister Theresa May to fire him amid last week’s cabinet reshuffle, that Johnson offered a second, fuller apology.

Johnson is known for his proclivity for diplomatic gaffes, and this is hardly the first he has made while representing the U.K. abroad. In a visit to Myanmar in September, the foreign secretary was caught on a hot mic reciting the opening lines to Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” before Andrew Patrick, the U.K. ambassador to Myanmar, could inform him that reciting a poem reminding their hosts about decades of British colonial rule was “probably not a good idea.” (“The temple bells they say / Come back you English soldier,” said Johnson, before Patrick intervened.) He faced further backlash and calls to resign just one month later when he told an audience at this year’s Conservative Party conference that the Libyan capital of Sirte had the potential to become the next Dubai, before adding: “The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.” In neither case did Johnson offer an apology.

But for all the missteps Johnson has overcome in the past, this latest gaffe is “of a different order,” Catherine Haddon, the resident historian of the London-based Institute of Government, told me, noting that “there’s a difference between gaffes where it’s considered damaging to his reputation—and by extension, the reputation of the British government—and things that have an impact on somebody’s life like it does in this case.”


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