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“Freedom feels like walking on clouds” – Anoosheh Ashoori after being freed by Iran

Sherry Izadi, Anoosheh Ashoori and their dog Romeo photographed at their south London home in May 2022. Photo: Jessica Parry

Anoosheh Ashoori is perched on his living room sofa in his south London home. Next to him is his wife, Sherry Izadi, and sprawled on his lap is Romeo, his beloved rescue dog. It is a scene both mundane and miraculous.

Ashoori is leafing through the previous issue of Delayed Gratification, pausing on a piece centred on the final months of his family’s struggle to free him from the notorious Evin prison in Iran, where he was held on unfounded spying charges for nearly five years before his release on 16th March. (The article, which also covers his arrest and detention, can be read here). He lingers on a photo we chose showing prisoners at Evin being used as forced labour to make army uniforms in 1986. “This takes me back,” he says with a hint of sadness in his voice. “That hall looks the same today. I was told they used to perform executions there.”

When I apologise for any distress caused by the photo, the 68-year-old British-Iranian dual national assures me he’s comfortable talking about his ordeal. It’s been two months since he returned to the UK alongside fellow British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but Evin is never far from his mind. The retired civil engineer has spent the morning working on a book based on his prison journals. Its working title is Ashoori’s Corner, named for a shaded spot in the shared yard outside Hall 12 at Evin, a modest refuge in a place he calls the “valley of hell”. Here, the morning glories he planted in a small flower bed climbed a trellis he had fashioned from broomstick handles, plastic fruit baskets and dental floss.

Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return to the UK seemed sudden and yet it was long overdue. After years of tireless campaigning by both families, including Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe’s 21-day hunger strike in front of the Foreign Office in November 2021, the British government agreed to pay Iran £400 million to settle a historic debt and the pair were permitted to go home.

The campaign took its toll on Ashoori’s family. Izadi required therapy to help her cope during some extremely difficult periods. Compared to the last time we met in January, today she seems unburdened, rekindled. She’s been noticing the little signs of her own recovery; she recently painted her nails for the first time in years. Days before her husband was released, however, she was feeling “extremely low”. In mid-February there had been a growing assumption that the talks over the revival of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in Vienna held the key to the release of her husband and other dual nationals held unjustly by Iran. Senior negotiators from Iran and some of the Western nations had said that an agreement was within touching distance, but then Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine.

Anoosheh Ashoori and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe disembark from a plane after landing at RAF Brize Norton in
the early hours of 17th March. Photo: Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

On 11th March a “necessary pause” to the Vienna talks was announced, reportedly due to complications over Russian sanctions in relation to Ukraine. When I had spoken to Richard Ratcliffe in February he told me that one of his fears was that if the nuclear talks broke down Iran might punish the West by concocting new sentences for its dual-national prisoners. The situation had seemed precarious. On Sunday 13th March, however, Izadi received a phone call from Stephanie Al-Qaq, director of the Middle East & North Africa department at the Foreign Office. “Stephanie said to me, ‘Please keep this to yourself but I’m going to Iran today’,” Izadi recalls. “And I said, ‘Because of the JCPOA?’ And she said ‘No, I’m going for the detainees, for Anoosheh. But please don’t get your hopes up.’”

My eyes stayed pinned on the entrance because I still hoped to see other British-Iranian dual nationals”

When Al-Qaq next called it was the middle of the night in Iran. She was meeting the Iranians in the morning and they were demanding Izadi pay a £27,000 fine before they release her husband. Al-Qaq needed to know if she could get the money. “So we cashed all our credit cards, used everything we had to put it together,” Izadi says. On 14th March, Ashoori was told by the prison manager that his family needed to pay the fine before he could be released. He refused, saying it was extortion. He was also asked to sign a waiver form declaring he wouldn’t sue the Iranian authorities after his release. He signed it reluctantly and went to bed. It would be his final night in prison.

“When a person is released there is a ritual in Evin where everybody goes to the bottom of the staircase and they start clapping,” says Ashoori. “You hug everybody and there are a few tears in people’s eyes. But at the same time as being happy that someone is being released you are so upset that it isn’t your turn.”

On 15th March – with the necessary documents signed and payment of the ‘fine’ arranged by his family – it was finally his turn. Carrying little more than his artworks from his marquetry classes, his journals and 100 dried morning glories from the bower in the yard to give to supporters of his campaign – nearly all of his possessions were donated to other prisoners – he ascended the staircase. “It is the moment every prisoner dreams of,” he says.

At the perimeter of the prison compound his 90-year-old mother was waiting for him. “She was crying and thanking everyone,” he recalls. “She found it all overwhelming.” He spent his final night in Iran – perhaps ever – at his mother’s Tehran apartment. A guard was stationed outside her front door all night, a reminder that he wasn’t free yet, and there was no reason to assume that release from Evin meant a family reunion in the UK. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had spent her final year in Iran on parole at her parents’ house in Tehran, banned from leaving the country.

Even when a car drove him to Tehran airport the following morning, he tried not to get his hopes up. It could be a trick. At the airport’s VIP lounge a woman walked in and waved at him. “I didn’t recognise her but then realised it must be Nazanin,” he says. Iranian officials didn’t let them talk to each other. “My eyes stayed pinned on the entrance because I still hoped to see other British-Iranian dual nationals,” says Ashoori. “Up until the very last moment I really hoped they would join us.”

One of the dual nationals Ashoori hoped to see was Morad Tahbaz. Tahbaz’s family say the Foreign Office assured them that the 66-year-old wildlife conservationist, also detained on false spying charges, would be part of any prisoner release agreement between Britain and Iran. They only discovered that Tahbaz, who also holds US citizenship, had been left behind when they heard about Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return on the news. Ashoori says he was devastated to discover that his friend wasn’t coming on the flight and that he won’t stop fighting until Tahbaz and others are released. According to Amnesty International, British-Iranian labour rights activist Mehran Raoof is still in Evin. Ashoori needs to be discreet because some prisoners, especially those with families in Iran, are nervous about the possible consequences of speaking out publicly, but when asked if any further British-Iranian dual nationals are at the prison, he replies “I think so”.

On the flight out of Iran, to Muscat on an Omani air force jet, Ashoori looked out of the window to see whether an Iranian aircraft was accompanying them. “It was only when I saw us flying over the Persian Gulf that my mind was at rest. That was the point of no return,” he says. From the Omani capital, the freed detainees and a few British officials occupied the first class section of an otherwise empty Boeing 757 and flew to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, where they landed just after 1am on Thursday 17th March.

“We thought we were just going to meet our families,” says Ashoori. “But as we got out of the aircraft the pilots asked for a photograph with us. And as soon as we came down the steps we started seeing the flashes of cameras hitting our eyes. I was just stunned. Why are all these people taking pictures?”

Their families watched the plane land through waiting room windows. “The first person to enter the room was Nazanin – Anoosheh was right behind her,” Izadi recalls. “I remember Gabriella [Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s seven-year-old daughter] calling out ‘Mummy!’ It was like a really sad wail, and then she just collapsed on the floor. And believe it or not that was more moving than us seeing each other.”

“Honestly, I had been imagining this moment for so many years,” Izadi continues thoughtfully. “I always thought there would be tears but there weren’t any… My first thought was ‘Oh my god, he’s aged so much and lost so much weight.’ I think so many thoughts and emotions were going through my head that it was difficult to get it together. But the primary emotion in that moment was relief, absolute relief… The relief overpowered the joy. The nightmare, at last, was over.”

The following morning the two reunited families met for breakfast in the safe house the British government had provided in the knowledge that reporters would be camped outside their homes. “I remember Richard saying that Gabriella slept between him and Nazanin all night. We told him that we had Romeo sleeping between us all night,” Izadi says.

Back at home in south London, Ashoori began to do some of the simple everyday things he’d dreamt of in prison. “Little things that might seem insignificant [are very meaningful to me] now,” says Ashoori. “When I’m taking Romeo for a walk, things like a particular street corner, a tree we used to pass.”

“We went to parliament last week and after the event finished we walked through Soho and Trafalgar Square,” Izadi says. “Anoosheh was looking everywhere – at the crowds, the people sitting on the grass eating and drinking, using their mobile phones… He was overwhelmed by all the sensory experiences.”

Anoosheh Ashoori places his portraits of Charles Darwin and Sir David Attenborough, both made in his marquetry class at Evin prison, on his dining table. Photo: Jessica Parry

Walking around the city, choosing your own path, with no prison guards in sight, is like “walking on clouds,” says Ashoori. “Words alone cannot explain the feeling of this freedom.” At times this new freedom seems unreal, a dream he will wake up from. He reaches for his wife’s hand when he’s awake during the night, to check she’s really there. “I get a lot of flashbacks,” he says. “They bother me but I can’t prevent them. So many times in prison I’d be having a dream in which I was with my family and then I’d wake up only to see I was still in my coffin, as I used to call it [my cell].”

Life’s simple pleasures are providing much joy. His first beer since 2017, given to him by Foreign Office staff, tasted particularly good. He’s been watching the new episodes of Star Trek; as a huge Trekkie it meant the world to him that actor Patrick Stewart was involved in his campaign. He’s had a Five Guys burger, fish and chips, and an English breakfast – with extra bacon. Yesterday he was at his daughter Elika’s house, helping to fix her plumbing. He’s fixed his mother-in-law’s glasses, started work on repairing the garden shed, and since his prototype for a macaron-making machine for Elika’s patisserie business is now covered in rust he’s going to rebuild it. “These are the kinds of things I always dreamed of doing,” he says. “Even before this all happened I dedicated my life to my family. After they so passionately tried to rescue me from [prison] I have even more reason to do so.”

In October, Ashoori plans to run the London Marathon to raise funds for Amnesty International and Hostage International, whose president, former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, has offered him advice since his release. Despite a dodgy knee Ashoori has been running regularly since his return. He also hopes to publicly exhibit the artworks he created in his prison marquetry classes, which he credits with helping him stay sane during his incarceration. His portraits of his heroes – Sir David Attenborough, Charles Darwin and, of course, Patrick Stewart – are intricately crafted from wood. He shows me another Star Trek-inspired artwork, a hand doing the Vulcan salute emblazoned with the words ‘Live Long and Prosper’, as well as a romantic gift for his wife – two cats with their tails entwined, surrounded by floating hearts, inspired by the 1970 Disney film The Aristocats. Was the film particularly meaningful to them? “No,” Izadi replies with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve seen it.”

Ashoori hasn’t accepted the prime minister’s offer of a meeting. Because ‘the job is not completed. There are others still there’”

On top of Ashori’s planned exhibition, marathon and memoir, he will campaign against state hostage-taking, not just by Iran, but also by other countries  that engage in the practice such as China, Russia and Turkey.

To end this brutal practice, Ashoori says, the UK should get behind a campaign backed by Richard Ratcliffe and legal charity Redress to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on the individual officials who profit from it. “It said [on the form he was shown] that half the fine would go to my interrogators,” says Ashoori. “The historic debt was £400 million and they didn’t forget this £27,000. It’s a tiny amount but it goes straight into the pockets of the interrogators and others. These are the people the British government has to target.” After her father’s release, Elika Ashoori set up a crowdfunding page to help them repay the credit card companies. They raised the entire £27,000 in a few hours.

The couple don’t expect they will ever be able to return to Iran, the country in which they were born and where they spent extended periods of their lives. Ashoori’s mother, though in her nineties, is still mobile and plans to visit the UK soon. “I have so many fantastic memories of Iran,” says Ashoori. “My childhood, our wedding, raising our children… But my country has been occupied by an ideology.”

“We have family and friends there,” Izadi adds. “I don’t hate the Iranian people. It’s the regime that’s doing this, not only to us but to its own 80 million population. It’s depriving its people of a decent standard of living through mismanagement, embezzlement, cronyism… Iran will always be part of us and I used to go back there once or twice a year to see my half-sister, to see friends. To not be able to do that because of completely baseless accusations makes me feel really bitter. I absolutely hate the Iranian government.”

The reunited couple with Ashoori’s artwork inspired by The Aristocats. Photo: Jessica Parry

Their feelings towards the UK government are more complicated. Ashoori says he is “immensely indebted” to the Foreign Office staff who helped secure his release. His wife says her feelings towards the department are more ambivalent because she’s had to spend years dealing with them. When we spoke in January she told me that the Foreign Office had treated her family like second class citizens.

A few days before our meeting Zaghari-Ratcliffe met Boris Johnson at Downing Street and explicitly criticised his handling of her case, in particular his erroneous 2017 comment while foreign secretary that she was in Iran “training journalists”.

Ashoori hasn’t accepted the prime minister’s offer of a meeting. “Because the job is not yet completed. There are others still there,” he explains when asked why. Moreover, Ashoori says, Johnson never responded to the direct pleas for help he sent from prison, and he never gave the family a minute of his time, not even a quick phone call. Now the prime minister is suddenly interested.

If nothing good comes out of this, all that time I was unjustly in prison was wasted”

“I don’t want to be used as a tool for political gain by somebody who didn’t pay any attention to us. I sense quite a bit of opportunism,” says Ashoori. He says he might still agree to meet with Johnson if the prime minister is prepared to give him answers over why it took so long for the UK to pay Iran a legitimate debt owed for decades, but Izadi is adamant on the matter. “I don’t want to see him or talk to him,” she says.

The couple haven’t yet been told why the deal to get Ashoori home happened when it did. Izadi believes that Ratcliffe’s hunger strike in November succeeded in pushing the government “to the point where they could no longer conveniently ignore him”. The government had also reached a point, she believes, where they could no longer plausibly deny that the historic debt and the fate of the detainees weren’t linked. “I think they realised that this was not going to go away,” she says. “They realised that it’s always going to be a thorn in their side… And what better feather in [foreign secretary] Liz Truss’s cap than getting
two people home, especially at a particularly depressing time just after Covid, with the economy going to shit.”

On 8th April 2022, Ashoori celebrated his birthday. The family had originally planned to invite 150 people but with Tahbaz and other friends still imprisoned in Evin it didn’t feel right. “In the end it was just a home gathering with a few friends,” Ashoori says. “Because of the guilty feeling I have for being released when others have been left behind, I couldn’t have a big event. I just couldn’t do it. Hopefully when all those friends are released we can have a big celebration.”

I ask the reunited couple how they’re getting along together after nearly five years in a long-distance relationship in which every conversation was listened to by prison officials, and by Ashoori’s mother, who was required to connect them via WhatsApp speakerphone since only domestic calls could be made from Evin prison.

“We’re getting there,” Izadi replies. “But, well, people change. And also Anoosheh wants to build on his experience – the book, the interviews, the fundraising – and I’m the opposite. I’m so tired of the emails, the writing and campaigning. I just want to put the whole thing away. We will have to strike an amicable balance. If I went through that experience I wouldn’t want it to go to waste either… We went to parliament last week and yes, it was really nice. But when will we ever get back to normal, you know?”

“Can we ever get back to normal?” her husband replies. “We can certainly never go back to the time before all this.”

Ashoori is determined to run that marathon, raise that money, cracked meniscus in his knee be damned. “If nothing good comes out of this, all that time I was unjustly in prison was wasted,” he tells me. “Something positive has to come from this.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #46 of Delayed Gratification

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