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17 March 2022

Witnessing the love story of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband was a privilege

“I think being alive and holding each other’s hands is how we’ll get through it,” Richard Ratcliffe told me while campaigning for his wife's release.

By Ailbhe Rea

No interview has been as much of a privilege for me as sitting with Richard Ratcliffe last November as he starved himself on the steps of the Foreign Office, fighting for the release of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from jail in Iran. Her release after six years, and her return to her husband and their young daughter, Gabriella, has moved even BBC newsreaders to tears.

There are, of course, the political implications of Nazanin’s release yesterday (16 March) to consider. It is a win for Boris Johnson, years on from his botched promise to repay a debt owed to Iran by the UK that probably set back progress on Nazanin’s case for years. And it is an even bigger win for Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who succeeded where her many predecessors failed, and who has added an argument to her case for succeeding Johnson when the time comes.

The government has confirmed that it has paid its £450m debt, which was owed to the Iranian government from a collapsed arms deal made before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This had been widely viewed as the main obstacle to Nazanin’s release, although the government had been reluctant to acknowledge it for fear of setting a precedent.

It was thought that the debt had been withheld in part due to difficulties created by international sanctions on Iran. The repayment therefore also represents a new diplomatic approach to the country. Critics of Johnson and Truss will argue that the good news of Nazanin’s release is the convenient by-product of diplomatic pivots as the UK turns away from Russian oil and gas and desperately seeks new sources of fuel; the Prime Minister is in Saudi Arabia hoping to secure more oil. There has never been a more fruitful time for the UK and the West in general to improve diplomatic relations with Iran, if that could lead to Iranian oil returning to international markets.  

Richard and Nazanin will be more aware than most of the shifting sands in international affairs that have contributed to her release, and the global diplomatic web that her case was tangled up in. But their concern will be each other and their daughter, and readjusting to life together after a long and painful separation. “I think without doubt, when all this is over, there will be scars,” Richard told me during that interview last year, never doubting that his wife would, eventually, be released. “Coming home’s a journey, not an arrival. There’s a whole process of putting the pieces back together and learning to be a normal family again. Spend four years, five years, six years apart, that takes a toll on a relationship.

“You’ve been living in different worlds. Even the normal stuff, it’ll take time. I suppose the shadows in her imagination will be different from the shadows in my imagination, and those will need to be laid to rest, partly individually, but partly together, as a family.”

This has been traumatic for their family, not least Gabriella, who began this public ordeal as a baby and is now seven. Richard told me that he and Nazanin worried about “this sense of abandonment” felt by the children of prisoners long into adulthood. “Why did my parents choose to abandon me and get imprisoned?” as he put it. “That’s the view of a five-year-old, but the view of a five-year-old can last a long time. Gabriella’s had a truncated life in that it was here, it was in Iran, now it’s back here, different circumstances, and we muddle through. I don’t think we have any perfect answers to it. But I think being alive and holding each other’s hands is how we’ll get through it.”

The detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been a serious, embarrassing sub-plot to Boris Johnson’s career for years. Yet there is something quite special about her case that transcends the everyday cut and thrust of politics. This is the story of a family unjustly separated and now, finally, reunited.

As Richard’s MP, Tulip Siddiq, said today: “He’s really set the bar high for all husbands.” When I interviewed him, that was what struck me and moved me. “You can narrate our story as a love story,” he told me. “It is, like all ordinary families are.” I still remember him saying it, and I still think it is one of the most romantic things I have ever heard. (The second sentence made it out of the final edit of the original interview.) One reader described his comments in our interview as “a perfect encapsulation of love in a lifetime relationship”.

“It’s not a Mills & Boon story,” Richard Ratcliffe told me, amused and embarrassed, while he was on hunger strike. “But I do think it’s important that she knows, always, that I’m there for her.” His campaign taught us all a quiet, unassuming lesson about commitment, his every action testament to a deep, pure and “ordinary” love, as he would insist on describing it. It has been a privilege to witness his and Nazanin’s public, ordinary, and kind of extraordinary, love story.

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