Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: A political hostage in Iran is finally returning home

As hopes mounted this week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would finally gain her freedom after six years in prison in Iran, her daughter Gabriella asked, “Is mom really coming home tomorrow?”

Her father Richard Ratcliffe, who has campaigned tirelessly from London for his wife’s release, reacted cautiously, knowing from bitter experience that nothing was certain. Hours later, the family was finally reunited after a private charter carrying Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, another released dual British-Iranian citizen, landed in the UK. The images of mother and daughter embracing in the early hours of Thursday morning brought an emotional conclusion to what many saw as a heinous case of “hostage diplomacy” by Iran’s theocracy.

However, it also raised questions as to why it has taken so long to secure her freedom. The regime released 43-year-old Zaghari-Ratcliffe after Britain finally agreed to settle an outstanding £400million debt for 1,500 Chieftain tanks that Iran ordered in the 1970s but never delivered because of the Islamic Revolution . “Ironically, it was a diplomatic triumph and it took too long,” says Jeremy Hunt, who served as British Foreign Secretary during one of the years Zaghari-Ratcliffe was imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. “Why? We hesitated. It took too long to decide whether it was a ransom or not.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested on espionage charges in April 2016 while she and Gabriella were visiting her parents in Tehran. When she was first held in solitary confinement, interrogators from the feared Revolutionary Guards “made it very clear to Nazanin and the lawyer what was at stake [Britain paying] the debt,” says Monique Villa, former executive director of the foundation. But the Foreign Office “completely refused” to take this into account.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who denied the allegations, was arrested at Tehran airport as she prepared to fly home. Gabriella, then almost two, was stranded with her grandparents. The British Foreign Office advised Villa and Ratcliffe not to publicize their arrests, suggesting that quiet diplomacy was better than a “cause célèbre” which would increase their value in the eyes of Iranian hardliners.

Britain has previously said it could not repay the debt because of EU sanctions on Iran’s defense ministry. There was also disagreement over how much interest should be paid. While family and colleagues publicly lobbied for her release, she was transferred to Evin, where she mingled with other prisoners, tried to exercise and even learned French. “She thought, ‘I have to stay sane. . . keep my mind sane’, which shows a lot of character,” says Villa.

Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist also detained in Evin, recalls “a very patient, kind woman” who “was proud to be Iranian”.

The chances of a release were briefly boosted in December 2017 after Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, flew to Iran and advanced her case. That was just weeks after he erroneously claimed she was supposed to train journalists, which Iranian hardliners used as evidence that she was working against the regime. British media reports at the time said Britain was preparing to pay off the tank’s debts. But hopes were dashed six months later when former US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with countries like Britain and imposed a wave of crippling sanctions on Iran.

As the pandemic swept Iran in early 2020, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was placed under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran. She was able to communicate more freely and even join a virtual yoga group. But then she was convicted of another crime and was banned from leaving the country. “[She was] I speak to Richard and Gabriella on WhatsApp every day. . . it made her life more normal,” says Villa. “But she was always very careful. . . she never felt safe.”

Negotiations resumed after the Biden administration took office last year, pledging to rejoin the nuclear deal and offer sanctions relief if Iran rolls back on its nuclear activities. It indicated that it was not opposed to the UK paying off the debt. But a deal to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori was shattered last summer by Iranian opposition to US insistence that Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist with British, American and Iranian nationalities, should also be released.

Efforts regained momentum after Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, met her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN summit in New York in September. Truss was clear “that this was a personal priority for her and that the debt was lawfully owed,” says a UK official. This triggered “a series of very long calls” and a negotiating team was dispatched to Tehran in October.

Iranian authorities returned Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s passport this week and a day later she was handed over to British officials. She and Ashoori were flown to Muscat before continuing on to the UK. Downing Street still insists the debt payment was “not conditional” on the prisoners’ release. (Even as she readjusts to family life, Zaghari-Ratcliffe campaigns for the release of Tahbaz, who remains in Iran.)

Whatever the politics of her freedom, Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now begin to rebuild her life. “She’s not bitter. Here I find them remarkable,” says Villa. “You have moments of depression, nothing seems right and it’s so unfair, but she always kept hope.”

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: A political hostage in Iran is finally returning home

Adam Bradshaw

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