As hopes rose this week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would finally win her freedom after being held in Iran for six years, her daughter Gabriella asked: “Is Mummy really coming home tomorrow?”
Her father, Richard Ratcliffe, who has campaigned tirelessly from London to secure his wife’s release, responded 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 UK-Iranian dual national, touched down in Britain. The images of mother and daughter embracing in the early hours of Thursday morning brought an emotional close to what many viewed as an abhorrent case of “hostage diplomacy” by Iran’s theocracy.
Yet it also raised questions about why it took so long to secure her freedom. The regime released Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, after Britain finally agreed to pay an outstanding debt of £400mn for 1,500 Chieftain tanks ordered by Iran 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 UK foreign secretary during one of the years Zaghari-Ratcliffe was incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. “Why? We hesitated. It took too long to decide if this was a ransom or not.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested on spying charges in April 2016 while visiting her parents in Tehran with Gabriella. When she was first held in solitary confinement, interrogators from the feared Revolutionary Guards “made it very clear to Nazanin and the lawyer it was all about [Britain paying] the debt,” says Monique Villa, former chief executive of the foundation. But the Foreign Office “completely refused” to take that into account.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who denied the charges, was arrested at Tehran airport as she prepared to fly home. Gabriella, then nearly two, was stranded with her grandparents. Britain’s Foreign Office advised Villa and Ratcliffe not to publicise her arrest, suggesting quiet diplomacy was better than a “cause célèbre” that would raise her value in the eyes of Iranian hardliners.
Britain has previously said it couldn’t pay back the debt because of EU sanctions on Iran’s defence ministry. There were also disagreements over how much interest should be paid. While family and colleagues publicly campaigned for her release, she was transferred to Evin where she mingled with other prisoners, tried to keep fit and even learnt French. “She thought ‘I must keep my sanity . . . keep my mind sane’, which shows a lot of character,” Villa says.
Narges Mohammadi, a human-rights activist also jailed in Evin, remembers “a very patient, kind woman” who was “proud of being Iranian”.
The chances of a release were briefly boosted in December 2017 after Boris Johnson, then foreign minister, flew to Iran and pressed her case. This was only weeks after he had mistakenly suggested that she trained journalists, which was leapt on by Iranian hardliners as proof she was working against the regime. British media reports at the time said the UK was preparing to pay the tank debt. However, hopes were dashed six months later when former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran had signed with countries including the UK, and imposed waves of crippling sanctions on Iran.
When the pandemic swept across Iran in early 2020, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was moved to house arrest at her parents’ Tehran home. She was able to communicate more freely, even joining a virtual yoga group. But she was then convicted of another offence and banned from leaving the country. “[She was] speaking to Richard and Gabriella every day on WhatsApp . . . it made her life more normal,” says Villa. “But she was always very cautious . . . she never felt safe.”
Negotiations picked up again after the Biden administration took office last year, pledging to rejoin the nuclear agreement and offer sanctions relief if Iran reversed its nuclear activity. It indicated it wasn’t opposed to the UK repaying the debt. Yet a deal to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori fell through last summer over Iranian opposition to US insistence that Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist with UK, US and Iranian nationality, should also be freed.
Efforts regained momentum after Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, met her Iranian counterpart on the fringes 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 legitimately owed,” a British official says. That set in motion “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 transiting to the UK. Downing Street still insists the debt payment was “not contingent” on the freeing of the prisoners. (Even as she readjusts to family life, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is lobbying for the release of Tahbaz, who remains in Iran.)
Whatever the politics of her freedom, Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now begin rebuilding her life. “She’s not bitter. This is where I find her remarkable,” Villa says. “You have moments of depression, nothing seems right and it’s so unjust, but she always kept the hope.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran