Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe arrives home from Iran after six years of wrongful detention

British-Iranian mother and fellow detainee Anousheh Ashoori land back in UK

Talks with Iran to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘going up to the wire’, says Boris Johnson

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British-Iranian national imprisoned in Iran arrived home last night after ministers settled a historic £400m debt owed to the regime in Tehran.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow detainee Anousheh Ashoori were flown to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

The mother was reunited with seven-year-old daughter Gabriella and husband Richard, who has conducted a long and very public campaign for her freedom.

He told The Independent last night that he was looking forward to an emotional reunion after her six-year ordeal.

“We will have a couple of days here of just catching up with each other,” he said. “It will probably involve having a cup of tea together, hanging out, learning to be normal and playing games.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained on security charges by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after a holiday visit to Iran, where she introduced her daughter Gabriella to her parents.

A third detainee, London-born wildlife conservationist Morad Tahbaz, has been temporarily released from prison “on furlough” but his ultimate fate is complicated by the fact he has US nationality as well as British and Iranian. And British-Iranian Mehran Raoof remains in custody as his release does not appear to have formed part of the deal.

In a coordinated move, the UK has made a payment of £393.8m in settlement of a 40-year-old debt for Chieftain tanks bought by the former shah of Iran but never delivered after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that removed him from power.

Prime minister Boris Johnson – who was accused of worsening Nazanin’s plight as foreign secretary when he wrongly told MPs she had been working as a journalist in Iran – welcomed the development.

He said: “The UK has worked intensively to secure their release and I am delighted they will be reunited with their families and loved ones.”

The Ratcliffes’ lawyer, Penny Madden, said the family had been through “a roller-coaster of emotions” over recent days as her release appeared to be drawing near, and were now feeling “enormous relief”. Gabriella was “beyond excited at the prospect of being reunited with her mummy”, said Ms Madden.

But she said it was a “big wrench” for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe to leave her parents behind in Iran, knowing that it will be all but impossible for her to return to the country.

Speaking to reporters alongside Gabriella near their north London home, Mr Ratcliffe said it was a “huge, huge relief” that his wife was finally returning.

“You can’t back the time that’s gone, but we live in the future not the past,” he said. “We’ll take it one day at a time.

“It’s going to be the beginning of a new life, a normal life. Can we still quite believe it? I think when we see mummy, we’ll believe it.”

Iran sentenced Nazanin – a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the Reuters news agency – to five years in prison in September 2016 after accusing her of “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”, a charge she has always denied.

Britain has always insisted that the dispute over the unpaid could not be linked to the unfair detentions.

But it is clear that the settlement of the long-standing debt was central to securing agreement from Iran’s clerical government to the releases.

UK officials are refusing to discuss the details of the payment, which were agreed on condition of confidentiality. But it is understood that it has not been made in cash and may be in the form of credit for purchases of humanitarian supplies such as vaccines.

In a statement, Ms Truss said the release was “the result of tenacious and creative British diplomacy”.

She said: “We have the deepest admiration for the resolve, courage and determination Nazanin, Anoosheh and Morad, and their families, have shown. They have faced hardship that no family should ever experience and this is a moment of great relief.”

Ms Truss said that the historic debt had been settled “in parallel” with the negotiations over the detainees and “in full compliance with UK and international sanctions and all legal obligations”.

She added: “These funds will be ring-fenced solely for the purchase of humanitarian goods.”

Concluding the deal has required lengthy negotiations to find a way for the payment to be made without Britain breaching UK or international sanctions and remaining within its international obligations.

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that it had been decided during his term of office in 2018 that the UK would repay the money, put “practical difficulties” relating to Iran’s sanctions had prevented progress.

Since the detentions began, a series of prime ministers and Foreign Office ministers have spoken directly to their Iranian counterparts on 35 occasions to press for their release and spoken 75 times to detainees’ families.

Ms Truss said that she made it her “top priority” on arrival at the Foreign Office last September to resolve the two issues, and the intensity of talks has stepped up in recent months.

Her meeting with Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in New York in September was the first face-to-face contact at this level for three years, and delivered an agreement to work towards finding a solution to the disputes “in parallel”.

Ms Truss sent a team of experienced negotiators to Tehran in October and spoke again with the Iranian foreign minister that month.

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