Twelve little words to mark the end of a waking nightmare: “Nazanin is at the airport in Tehran and on her way home”.
After nearly six years in detention in Iran, British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s years-long separation from her husband Richard and seven-year-old daughter Gabriella seems to be finally coming to an end with reports that she and another British citizen Anoosheh Ashoori, who has also been detained for five years in Iran, have been released and are on their way home.
And in the end, it seems as though the repayment of a decades-old debt owed by Britain to Iran – and long acknowledged as legitimate by British officials and an international court – was the key to securing their freedom. Which begs the question: Why did it take so long? Why did two innocent families have to sacrifice so much precious time together over a financial transaction that, while complicated, should have been possible to resolve years ago?
While the blame for seizing Nazanin and Anoosheh as “diplomatic hostages” clearly lies with Iran, the news that their release came after the debt was paid does beg the question of why Britain could not have done this earlier – as the families have been demanding for so long.
Reuters quoted Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency on Wednesday as saying that the UK had released $530 million of its debts to Iran ahead of the release of the prisoners. The money relates to an order for tanks that were never delivered to Iran in the 1970s, and Iranian officials had reportedly told both Nazanin and Anoosheh that it was key to their release during their detentions.
The payment of this debt was what Richard Ratcliffe has been asking for for years. In the face of years of government silence, the mild-mannered accountant was forced to become a warrior for his wife, putting his life on hold and sometimes even his body on the line as he starved himself outside the Foreign Office in a desperate bid to get Boris Johnson’s government to do more.
When I met him during his three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office on a cold November day last year, his face was haggard and he described how his body was shutting down. He was not optimistic but he felt as though he had to do something, had to keep the momentum up so that Nazanin would not be forgotten.
It was the same for Anoosheh’s wife, Sherry. She told me last year that her 67-year-old husband, a retired engineer, got most anxious when things were quiet, when he felt the world had forgotten him. She and her children lobbied the Foreign Office ceaselessly to make sure this didn’t happen.
On Wednesday, as the possibility of seeing their loved ones became more real by the moment, the families urged caution – they have been here before. But it does seem as if this time there is a real chance that the nightmare may be over.
The good news first broke on Wednesday morning in a tweet from Tulip Siddiqi, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s home constituency.
“Nazanin is at the airport in Tehran and on her way home. I came into politics to make a difference, and right now I’m feeling like I have,” Siddiqi tweeted.
Later on Sky News, Siddiqi said that while Nazanin was still under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard at the airport in Tehran — and that this was a reason to still be cautious — the family were optimistic that she could finally be coming home.
“The way (Richard) described it to me is that they can smell freedom, they just haven’t grasped it yet. As you can imagine, Richard is very emotional, patiently waiting as he has been for six years but doesn’t have confirmation that his wife is on the flight yet,” she said.
Hopes of a breakthrough were raised on Tuesday when Siddiqi said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been given back her UK passport while a team of British negotiators were on the ground in Tehran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has dual British-Iranian citizenship, was detained while visiting her parents in Tehran with baby Gabriella in 2016. She was accused of plotting against the regime – charges she denies – and sentenced to five years in jail. She served four years in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail but was released to house arrest in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, when her original sentence was up, she was hit with fresh charges of spreading propaganda and sentenced last April to another year under house arrest and a one-year travel ban. Since then, she has been waiting nervously for a summons to return to jail.
Boris Johnson himself made her situation worse during those bleak years when he said in 2017 that she was in Iran to train journalists — a terrible mistake that enabled a propaganda campaign against her and was used to justify a second court case. The families repeatedly begged the British government and successive foreign ministers to do more to bring their loved ones home.
Ashoori, a retired engineer with dual nationality, was snatched off the streets of Tehran while visiting his mother in 2017 and was serving a 10-year sentence on trumped-up spying charges that he denies.
It was not clear on Wednesday what was happening with Morad Tahbaz, a businessman and wildlife conservationist who was detained in Iran in 2018 and who has British, US and Iranian nationality. Another British-Iranian citizen is also believed to be held by Tehran.
These questions will remain, as will the biggest of all: If Britain has secured these releases by paying its dues, then what was it all for?