'We took too long' to free Nazanin: Jeremy Hunt admits as she flies home from Iranian jail

16 March 2022, 18:32 | Updated: 16 March 2022, 19:30

By Will Taylor

The UK took too long to get Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe free from Iran, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted.

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Speaking on LBC's Tonight with Andrew Marr, he also said that Boris Johnson's comments about her training journalists – which Tehran used against her – were not the reason she was kept detained.

He said while the remarks were "unfortunate", the real issue was an outstanding £400m payment owed by the UK over a deal to sell tanks.

"I have to say that I think in retrospect we'll look back and say we took too long, I think that's something to think about another day," he said.

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"Today, we want to celebrate but I think it took too long."

Addressing Mr Johnson's much-criticised past comments about why Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran, Mr Hunt said: "They weren't saying that was the issue, they were saying it was about the money, and it was very very transactional."

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Mr Johnson, who was serving as foreign secretary when he made the remarks to MPs in 2017, had said: "When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it."

The Iranian regime seized on the remarks, using it to try and justify her ongoing detention, and Mr Johnson was roundly criticised for what he said.

Mr Hunt also insisted the payment of £400m was not the same as when stateless terrorists capture Westerners and demand money, encouraging more hostage-takings.

"I've concluded it wasn't ransom money, it was a debt," he said.

"And if we're a country that is saying everyone must obey the rule of law in a way that Putin doesn't, for example, then we have to pay our debts, however unsavoury the regime is that we owe the money to."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was finally freed on Wednesday after six years of detention in Iran - including in the notorious Evin prison. The dual British-Iranian national had been visiting the country on holiday.

She was freed alongside Anoosheh Ashoori, another dual national.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been accused of trying to overthrow the regime there, allegations dismissed as trumped-up by critics and denied by her.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, campaigned vigorously for her release, which came after the UK paid a £400m debt.

That revolved around an agreement to sell tanks to Iran, which was cancelled after the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution overthrew the existing government.

Tehran had paid for the Chieftain tanks, which were never sent.

Some observers on Wednesday questioned if part of the agreement could have involved oil, given the West is looking for alternative energy sources than Russia.

Asked about that by Andrew, Mr Hunt said: "I don't know the answer to that question but I don't think so.

"I think this is about paying the debt in a way that is consistent with sanctions, I genuinely think that everyone who has been foreign secretary while this has been happening has wanted to solve this problem, and it has taken a while to work through these issues."

He also paid tribute to Mr Ratcliffe's campaign, saying he had also brought attention to the issue of hostage-taking.

"I don't think Nazanin would be home today if it wasn't for her husband Richard," Mr Hunt said.

"And Richard did one incredible thing as a human being – the Foreign Office told him to keep quiet about this and he ignored that advice [which predated Mr Hunt's tenure].

"Now the Foreign Office did it for a very good reason, they said it will be easier to negotiate privately with the Iranians… and he said no, I want the world to know about Nazanin and in doing that he told the world about hostage taking."

Mr Hunt proposed that democracies could consider any hostage taking from any state among their ranks as taking someone captive from any of those countries.

The wife of Mr Ashoori said of her husband's release: "I think the moment I see him coming down the steps of that plane, I think firstly my brain has to register this is actually happening for me to believe it, and as soon as that happens I think we're going to give him an extremely massive hug."

She added: "We are going to go home, hopefully celebrate, my daughter's made a cake, and I think my husband's really looking forward to having his first beer in five years.

"And yes, hopefully maybe have something to eat and try and get a semblance of normality."