Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ordeal nears an end after six long years

Nearly six years have passed since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard at Tehran Airport as she prepared to fly home to London.

In that time, she has endured untold suffering as she has been effectively held hostage by Tehran for diplomatic leverage, spending more than eight months in solitary confinement, and being interrogated - often blindfolded - for up to nine hours at a stretch.

Now, the hurt is over, with the 44-year-old, together with Anoosheh Ashoori, her fellow British-Iranian national, set to fly home to the UK. A third dual national, Morad Tahbaz, has been released from prison on furlough.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss hailed it as the the result of “tenacious and creative British diplomacy,” and confirmed that the UK had paid a £400m debt owed to Tehran, the legacy of the non-delivery of Chieftain tanks ordered by the Shah of Iran before his overthrow in the 1979 revolution.

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She added that “instensive” diplomatic efforts had been under way for the past six months, and praised the “resolve, courage, and determination” of those held by Iran, and their families at home.

Moments before Ms Truss issued her statement, a picture emerged of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe wearing a broad smile. She was aboard a plane to Oman, where she was due to fly to the UK.

The fast-paced developments brings to an end a brutal six years for the aid worker, who went to Iran on holiday only to find herself accused of plotting against its government – allegations she denied.

Her physical and mental health deteriorated sharply over that period, as evidenced in the first despairing letter she wrote to her husband, Richard, from jail.

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Labour's Tulip Siddiq tweeted a photograph of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe on a plane flying home to the UK.

“Every day and every second I would submerge more and more in an ocean of doubt, fear, threat, and loneliness,” she explained.

The greatest source of pain was being apart from her daughter, Gabriella, for so long, unable to see her lose her first baby tooth, or start her first day at primary school.

Milestones marked by every family have come and gone, and save for prison visits and a brief reunion during a three day release in the summer of 2018, they have been separated.

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It was hoped that moment signalled the beginning of the end, but like so many other times throughout her ordeal, it proved to be a false dawn, adding to Mrs Zaghari-Ratclffe’s feelings of guilt and anguish. In one letter she sent to her beloved ‘Gisou’, she asked for her forgiveness.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran for nearly six years. Picture: Zaghari-Ratcliffe family via AP

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released and allowed to leave Iran

“There will come a day when I will learn if strawberries and blueberries are still your favourite food, if orange is still your favourite colour,” she wrote. That day, at long last, has arrived.

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Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was due to be reunited with her husband and seven-year-old daughter night. He said that they were looking forward to the “beginning of a new life” together.

"We can’t take 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.” Gabriella, he added, has already picked out toys to take to the airport to greet her mother,

Such precious moments will be cherished. The time will come soon to ask why it took close to six years to secure her release, and to scrutinise what more could have been done by the UK government to expedite that process.

There are countless questions to answer, not least surrounding the diplomatic efforts by Boris Johnson, both during his premiership and in his time as foreign secretary.

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His careless remarks to the foreign affairs select committee in the autumn of 2017, when he said that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran, were quickly seized upon by authorities in Tehran, and cited as proof that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime.”

The anger and dismay felt then was intensified last April after Iran sentenced the British-Iranian dual national to an additional year in prison, alongside a year-long travel ban.

That development, said Labour MP Tulip Siddiq - the family’s local MP - was directly linked to the prime minister’s “dismal failure” to stand up for her constituent.

Questions will also be asked over why it took so long to repay the historic debt to Tehran. The UK had admitted liability for it back in September 2020, and at least one previous proposed deal to settle it is understood to have fallen through.

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All the while, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was forced to wait and wait some more, with her husband going on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in an attempt to put pressure on ministers to act.

Those issues, and more, will be keenly debated in the weeks and months to come. But for the moment, relief and joy are the order of the day.

News that the release was happening was all but confirmed shortly after 11am, when Iranian state media reported that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been handed over to a British team at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, and was set to leave the country alongside Mr Ashoori, a retired civil engineer who has been imprisoned in Iran for the past four years.

Soon after, Ms Siddiq confirmed that the two Britiish-Iranian nationals were at a holding room in the airport, and about to leave for home..

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For their loved ones, who have been waiting for this day for so long, the news has been almost too much to comprehend.

Richard Ratcliffe's sister, Rebecca, said it felt like they were on the "home run" following the news that her sister-in-law had been taken to the airport.

The development has also been widely welcomed by those across the political spectrum.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that while it would be prudent to wait until Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori were back on UK soil, there was hope.

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“What a massive ray of sunshine this would be in an otherwise dark world, and such a tribute to those who have campaigned long and hard for this moment,” she tweeted.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said: “For Nazanin, for Richard, and their daughter, this is an incredible moment after so much anguish.

"My emotion, I think, will be the emotion of families across the whole of the country which is just so pleased for them.”

For the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family, who have been at the centre of an international story for the best part of their daughter's lifetime, such kind words will be welcomed.

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But nothing will compare to the simple pleasure of being together again, and looking ahead. As Mr Ratcliffe reflected yesterday: “This will be a chapter in our lives, but there are many more chapters to come … we live in the future and not the past.”

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