Sunday, December 3

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is free. But why now? And why did it take so long? | simon tisdall

yeshe’s free! In a world overwhelmed by woeful tidings, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after six years of hell in Tehran provides a rare moment of joy. Yet when the cheering stops, there will be many questions to answer – such as why now, and why on earth did it take so long?

Pleasure and relief over this sudden breakthrough will be deservedly felt, first and foremost, by Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and their seven-year-old daughter, Gabriella. The family of another British-Iranian detainee, Anoosheh Ashoori, are celebrating his freedom from him, too. But Morad Tahbaz, a British-Iranian-American, has not been so fortunate. Although he has been released and placed on furlough inside the country, Iran is reportedly treating him as an American citizen and thus part of a separate negotiation with the US.

During an ordeal that never seemed to end, Richard Ratcliffe’s tirelessly intelligent, passionate campaign for his wife’s release won the respect not only of the British public, but also of a too secretive Foreign Office. Whitehall mandarins prefer to handle such matters privately, behind closed doors.

But their softly-softly approach, genuinely intended to avoid antagonizing the Iranians, seemed only to embolden them. Hardliners such as Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a former chief justice who presided over Nazanin’s unjust, illegal incarceration, and his like-minded deputy, Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected president last year, are chief among the guilty men.

Another is Boris Johnson. As foreign secretary, he disastrously misrepresented Nazanin’s activities in Tehran. But despite this, Ratcliffe kept going. His very public hunger strike last autumn showed again his determination de ella not to let her plight drop out of the headlines. Now his love, tenacity and courage de ella – and hers – have been rewarded at last.

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Of the many unanswered questions surrounding this affair, one of the most pressing was whether, despite denials on both sides, the payment of an acknowledged £400m British debt to Iran was indeed the price of Nazanin’s freedom.

Confirmation has now been made that the debt has been paid, with the money ringfenced for humanitarian purposes. So it appears the government, de facto, has just paid a ransom for the release of hostages in contravention of stated principles. Or are we really expected to believe these two supposedly unconnected issues have been dealt with in parallel and separately?

Before Johnson and Liz Truss start taking bows for springing Nazanin and Anoosheh, they should also explain why it all took so long. Why was the debt repayment withheld if it would be paid later? Were the years of delay, during which time Nazanin suffered extreme psychological torture and physical hardship, entirely due to bloody-minded Iranian intransigence?

Or is it true, as many suspect, that Nazanin’s case became inextricably mixed up with broader western concerns relating to the US-Israeli stand-off with Iran under Donald Trump, with competing attempts to salvage or torpedo the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, and with complex negotiations involving American-Iranian detainees?

This week’s breakthrough coincides with rising hopes that a revised nuclear deal will soon be agreed. Following the Ukraine invasion and subsequent western action to curb Russian energy imports, the US and Europe suddenly have a powerful incentive to lift sanctions and allow Iranian oil and gas back into a damagingly overpriced market.

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Perhaps Nazanin, a victim of these protracted nuclear wranglings, is now a belated beneficiary of their prospective resolution. She may also have benefited from being disentangled by British negotiators from ongoing, so far unsuccessful US attempts to secure the release of four or more American citizens, including the unfortunate Tahbaz.

Iranian state TV quoted unnamed sources in May last year claiming Washington had agreed to pay $7bn for four detained Americans. At the same time, it said the UK would pay its debt in return for Nazanin. The US denied the reportBritish officials declined to comment, and nothing happened.

Then, last month, MPs were told the UK had indeed signed an agreement to secure Nazanin’s release last summer, but it had fallen through. No reason was given – but it was suggested it was because the US side of the deal had not been agreed. This time, unlike last summer, it seems Britain, quite rightly, has not waited for an American OK.

Such murkiness aside, there are clear questions for Iran’s rulers to answer, too. The treatment of Nazanin and her fellow detainees is and was unforgivable. What kind of bent and twisted government exploits the misery of innocent people, using them as hostages for crude political ends? Is this really how Iran proposes to build its influence across the Middle East? Why, if a new nuclear deal is agreed, has the west any reason to trust this rogue regime?

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