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Nazanin freed

Nazanin freed

British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has returned home to the UK after being held hostage by Iran for nearly six years. What do we know about why she was finally released?


In April 2016, at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a British-Iranian woman – was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. 

They said it was because she was a spy but she wasn’t.

The real reason they took her hostage was much murkier.

***

Since her arrest Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in solitary confinement, gone on hunger strike and she’s been under house arrest. 

She became a pawn in a long-running dispute between the British and Iranian governments over a debt owed by Britain.

Richard Ratcliffe is Nazanin’s husband.

“I think in terms of it being explained to us, it was explained to her first, through kind of half suggestions then gradually clearer messages, the message that came to us from the interrogators, was listen, we’re holding you to make the British reach the agreement – if the British reach the agreement you’ll leave without charge.” 

Richard Ratcliffe

Then, yesterday, almost six years after she was arrested she was freed, along with another prisoner, Anoosheh Ashoori.

“Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori heading to a… sorry this is a moving moment because these are people who have been detained for some time. So we’re hearing that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are heading to the airport to leave the country, their lawyer Hojjat Kermani has said.”

BBC News

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Ceri Thomas is an editor at Tortoise, the newsroom I work for, and he’s been reporting on this story for a while

“We’d done some stuff at Tortoise when Richard was on his first hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy but every day I cycled on my way to work past the end of King Charles Street, where Richard was holding a hunger strike outside the foreign office, and I started thinking it’s ridiculous cycling past, I’m going to go in. So I just started going to see him and we’d spend a few minutes chatting, and the more that I saw him in this sort of valley in-between these huge buildings, the foreign office and the treasury, the more I got this image of this man trying to deal with these huge institutions, this sort of tiny person up against the power of the British state and the Iranian state and the Americans”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

Richard’s wife was being used as leverage for Iran over Britain and the US.

“Iran was ruled by the Shah who was an absolute ruler and a despot. He bought 1,750 tanks from the UK. And for reasons that were almost certainly to do with corruption, he paid for all of them upfront. He was deposed in 1979 by the Islamic revolution, which brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran and they cancelled the deal. But of course they’d given us all the money and so they started asking for it back in 1979. And the amazing thing is it’s taken till today, 43 years later, to pay it.”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

So what was the connection between a dispute that had been going on for decades, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest in 2016?

“The link may be a very similar American debt. So the Americans, when the Shah was deposed, ended up also owing a lot of money to Iran. And in 2016 they paid their debt and they released some of their hostages and let go some Iranian prisoners in return. And the sort of strongest theory of the case is that an organisation called the Revolutionary Guard inside Iran, sort of hard-line Revolutionary Guard, looked at what happened there and thought that we’ve taken some American hostages and they’ve paid their debt. Why don’t we do that again?”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

***

To understand why Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have been released now, you need to know why previous attempts failed.

“There was nearly a deal to get her out in 2017, there was nearly a deal to get her out in 2019, then there was very, very, nearly a deal to get her out in July 2021. And we know that in July last year, the deal included paying the debt. And what happened then was, the Americans intervened to say, we’ve now decided that we want our hostages to come out as well as the British hostages. Can we please try to do this together? The British government effectively said, alright, we’ll go along with that for a time. We’ll go in… with the Americans, try to get all of our hostages out so that we can put an end to this whole hostage crisis once and for all potentially.”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

There are a couple of reasons why that arrangement may now have come to an end. The first is that talks on the Iran nuclear deal were officially paused last week.

“So in theory, both the British government and the American government, actually the Iranians as well, would say that the nuclear talks are nothing to do with the hostages. In practice, if you look back to when the American hostages came out in 2016, they came out on the day that the nuclear deal was done. So the truth has always seemed to me that the most likely thing was that if the talks in Vienna, which were trying to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and the west to stop Iran building a nuclear weapons program, if those talks had succeeded, then I’m sure that Nazanin and Anoosheh surely as well, would have come out in the margins of that deal.

The more difficult question was what would happen if the talks in Vienna failed. So then the British government had a decision. Did they stay in line with the Americans and say, all right, we won’t release… But that would have condemned Nazanin and Anoosheh, probably two more years in prison. Did they do that or do they do what they seem to have done, which is to say now is the time we are going to deal with this and we’re going to bring them home.”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

The other possible reason is a sense of fairness. The US officials who did the deal to release American hostages in 2016 are back in government.

“If someone was going to stop Britain doing this deal, it would have to be someone who had allowed through exactly the same American deal six years ago. And so… the hypocrisy that would be involved in doing that, I think became a kind of problem of its own that they just couldn’t get around.”

Ceri Thomas, Tortoise

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are home and with their families

“Homecoming’s a journey, not an arrival. I don’t think it will just be today. It’ll be a whole process. And hopefully we’ll look back and be a normal family, and this will be a chapter in our lives, but there will be many more chapters to come.”

Richard Ratcliffe, BBC News

But while this part of their story is coming to an end, Iran is still holding other British hostages. 

The path to freedom for them may be even less clear now the tank debt has been settled. 

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Today’s story was written by Lewis Vickers and produced by Claudia Williams.

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