Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has told Boris Johnson that for four years she lived in the shadow of his mistaken statement as foreign secretary that she had been in Iran to train journalists.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, released by Iran just over a month ago, told Johnson in a face-to-face meeting in Downing Street that his remarks had had a big impact on her life, according to Tulip Siddiq, her MP and close ally.
Speaking outside Downing Street after the meeting, Siddiq said Johnson looked visibly shocked, and she said she was proud of Zaghari-Ratcliffe for being so blunt.
In 2017, giving evidence to the foreign affairs select committee, Johnson said Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in Tehran to train journalists, when she had travelled to Iran to see her parents with her child, Gabriella. Johnson’s remarks, which he later clarified, were seized upon by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, but were not cited when they took a second case against her last year after she had served her initial five-year sentence.
Siddiq said: “Nazanin was sitting next to the prime minister and told him very clearly and categorically that his words had a big impact on her and that she lived in the shadow of his words for the best part of four and a half years, and I have to say the prime minister looked quite shocked I think when she said that.
“I was really proud she said that to him because she wanted to make it clear she is happy now, is grateful and appreciates the fact that she is home now, but there was a time when those words had a big impact.”
According to Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, Johnson offered no apology for his personal handling of the case or any view that the Foreign Office could have done more to secure earlier release.
She was held in Iran for six years and released only after the UK government finally paid an acknowledged £400m debt to Iran, a debt that the UK had previously either contested or said could not be paid due to sanctions. Ministers had always denied there was a link between the debt and her detention.
In the end the debt was paid to Iran via a bank in Oman on the strict condition that the money is used only for humanitarian purposes. It is not clear how that agreement is policed.
Ratcliffe stressed it was not an “abrasive meeting” and said it was “undeniable” that Johnson was sorry for the impact his mistake had had, having publicly said he was sorry “if I inadvertently caused any further anguish”.
Ratcliffe said lessons needed to be learned from the mistakes by the UK government in handling the case, an issue that is expected to be picked up when the foreign affairs select committee starts an inquiry into Iranian state hostage-taking.
The former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Middle East minister Alistair Burt, both advocates of paying the debt, are due to give evidence. Zaghari-Ratcliffe suggested the prime minister could also give evidence, something he said he would consider.
The delegation to Downing Street made a point of raising the case of Morad Tahbaz, a British Iranian American trinational who has been left in Tehran, and not put on a form of parole as previously expected.
Ratcliffe said: “I am lighter and fatter and happier and life is picking up, but there are others left in harm’s way. There are two new French people picked up this week and a Swedish guy on death row. When they are threatening to execute someone, that is a real red line and a warning signal. If they are willing to kill one person, no one is safe.”
No 10 said: “I think it is important to remember that it was the Iranian government who were responsible for her unfair detention, and the decision to release her was always in their gift. However, I would point back to the prime minister’s words, his answers to questions on this before, and he has previously apologised for his comments in 2017.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, still recovering from her ordeal, opted to say nothing after the meeting, but stood alongside her daughter.