As hopes grew this week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would finally win her freedom after being held in Iran for six years, her daughter Gabriella asked, “Is Mom really coming home tomorrow?”
Her father, Richard Ratcliffe, who has campaigned tirelessly from London to secure 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 featuring Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, another released British-Iranian dual citizen, landed in Britain. The images of mother and daughter embracing in the early hours of Thursday morning brought an emotional conclusion to what many viewed as a horrific case of “hostage diplomacy” by Iran’s theocracy.
But it also raised questions about why it took so long to secure her freedom. The regime released Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, after Britain eventually agreed to pay an outstanding £400 million debt for 1,500 Chieftain tanks ordered by Iran in the 1970s but never delivered due to the Islamic Revolution. . “Ironically, it was a diplomatic triumph, and it lasted too long,” said Jeremy Hunt, who served as the UK’s foreign secretary for one of those years during one of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s infamous Evin prison years. Tehran was imprisoned. “Why? We hesitated. It took too long to decide whether this was a ransom or not.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 on charges of espionage while visiting her parents in Tehran with Gabriella. When she was first held in solitary confinement, interrogators from the dreaded Revolutionary Guards “made it very clear to Nazanin and the lawyer what it was all about. [Britain paying] the debt,” says Monique Villa, former CEO of the foundation. But the State Department “completely refused” to take that into account.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has denied the charges, 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 make her arrest public, suggesting that quiet diplomacy was better than a ’cause célèbre’ that would increase her value in the eyes of Iranian hardliners.
Britain has previously said it could not repay the debt due to EU sanctions against Iran’s defense ministry. There were also differences of opinion about the level of the interest. While family and colleagues publicly campaigned for her release, she was transferred to Evin, where she mixed with other inmates, tried to keep fit and even learned French. She thought, ‘I have to keep my wits about me. † † keep my mind san’, that shows a lot of character’, says Villa.
Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist also imprisoned in Evin, recalls “a very patient, kind woman” who was “proud to be Iranian”.
The chances of release were briefly increased in December 2017 after Boris Johnson, then Secretary of State, flew to Iran and filed her case. This was just weeks after he falsely suggested that she would train journalists, which has been seized by Iranian hardliners as evidence that she was working against the regime. British media reported at the time that the UK was preparing to pay the tank debt. Six months later, however, hopes were dashed when former US President Donald Trump unilaterally renounced the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with countries, including the UK, and imposed waves of crippling sanctions on Iran.
When the pandemic hit 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 participated in a virtual yoga group. But she was subsequently convicted of another crime and banned from leaving the country. †[She was] talking to Richard and Gabriella every day on WhatsApp. † † 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 if Iran reversed its nuclear activity. It indicated that it was not opposed to the UK repaying the debt. Yet a deal to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori fell through last summer amid Iranian opposition to US insistence that Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist of British, American and Iranian nationality, should also be released.
Efforts picked up again after British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss 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 blame was legitimate,” a British official said. That set in motion “a series of very long talks” and a negotiating team was sent to Tehran in October.
Iranian authorities returned Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s passport this week and she was handed over to British officials a day later. She and Ashoori were flown to Muscat before continuing on to the UK. Downing Street maintains that the payment of the debt was “not dependent” on the release of the prisoners. (Even as she adjusts to family life, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is lobbying for the release of Tahbaz, who will remain in Iran.)
Whatever the politics of her freedom, Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now start rebuilding her life. ‘She’s not bitter. Here I find her remarkable’, says Villa. “You have moments of depression, nothing seems right and it’s so unjust, but she always kept hope.”
Additional coverage by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
This post Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: A political hostage in Iran finally returns home was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/d271a32f-9c1b-40c2-867a-7a2002139c60”