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The taken – the final months of the campaigns to release Nazanin and Anoosheh

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori wave after landing at RAF Brize Norton on 17th March 2022. Photo: Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

On the afternoon of 11th November 2021, the nineteenth day of his hunger strike in London, Richard Ratcliffe walked from the grand classical buildings of the Foreign Office to his tent and fold-up camping chair on the other side of the road. He broke away from his campaign team to give an impromptu press conference about his meeting with Foreign Office minister James Cleverly.  “It felt perfectly nice, sincere, caring, but we’re still stuck in the same status quo,” he said, his voice slightly slurry after nearly three weeks without food. “We’re still stuck with the same problems that led us to this hunger strike.”

Earlier in the day, Cleverly had met Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani as part of the preparations for the resumption of talks in Vienna later in the month over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which had been torpedoed by the Trump administration’s withdrawal in 2018. Ratcliffe had been hoping for positive news about the Foreign Office’s ongoing efforts to secure the freedom of his wife, British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had been arrested in Iran while visiting her parents for Persian new year celebrations in 2016, and separated from her one-year-old daughter Gabriella. But he left the meeting feeling deflated, “with an empty stomach and an empty heart.”

On the 13th day of his hunger strike in London, Richard Ratcliffe is joined by his daughter Gabriella in a candlelit vigil for their wife and mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 5th November 2021. Photo: Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After his kerbside press conference he took a sip of water mixed with vitamins and electrolytes before greeting a steady stream of supporters and well-wishers with a warmth and attentiveness that belied his frustration and fatigue. Strangers approached to ask if they could shake his hand, or give him a hug. Scattered on the ground of the makeshift camp he occupied for three weeks were colourful painted pebbles, intended to remind visiting government ministers of Boris Johnson’s 2017 pledge to “leave no stone unturned” to bring home his wife.

Barely any government ministers visited Ratcliffe during his stay on the pavement of King Charles Street. The prime minister didn’t visit either. Had they done so, they would have seen his demands written on a placard, propped against a wall adorned with candles, trinkets and a Halloween pumpkin. It said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British citizens detained in Iran must be referred to as ‘hostages’ [the government is reluctant to use the word], that the perpetrators must be punished, that the British government must include its detainees in the nuclear negotiations, and that it must pay a historical debt owed to Iran.

Two days later Ratcliffe concluded his hunger strike, saying he had promised his family that he wouldn’t take it too far. His seven-year-old daughter, he said, needed two parents. It initially looked like he hadn’t made the breakthrough he had been hoping for. But the mood was quietly changing in the government buildings near his campsite. There would be light at the end of the tunnel.

I met Anoosheh Ashoori’s wife, Sherry Izadi, and his daughter, Elika Ashoori close to their south London home on 16th January 2022, two months before their nightmare ended. For many years Ashoori travelled regularly to Iran to visit his elderly mother without incident. And then on 13th August 2017 he was bundled into a van on a Tehran street. For the next four and a half years, the British-Iranian dual national barely left Evin prison, a notorious facility in Tehran that has long been a focus of rights groups’ complaints of abuse and mistreatment.

Elika owns a patisserie business and runs a stall in Greenwich Market, right across the road from where we met. At the time of her father’s kidnapping, he had almost finished work on a prototype for a macaron machine, which would have spared her the laborious task of hand-piping the mixture. A retired engineer, Ashoori loved to build things in his spare time, and Elika described a childhood enlivened by “dad-made contraptions”. As a teenager growing up in Iran he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. As a father to Elika and her brother Aryan, he told bedtime stories about Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and ran science classes for them and their friends in the basement.

Elika Ashoori in London in June 2020. Photo: Daniel Leal / AFP

Ashoori’s passion for science and technology was not matched by an enthusiasm for politics – and his lack of interest in the topic seems to run in the family. When she found out her father had been accused of being a Mossad spy, Elika had to Google the name of Israel’s intelligence agency. “The charge against him was so out there,” said Izadi, Ashoori’s partner of more than 40 years. “It was beyond ridiculous. For about a year after his arrest we thought there had been a mistake.”

There hadn’t been a mistake. The charges against Ashoori were intentional and bogus – and everyone knew it, from the judges to the politicians to the prison wardens, one of whom, Izadi told me, had recently apologised to Ashoori, saying he was sorry for the 67-year-old’s predicament. When the Iranian judiciary sentenced Ashoori to 10 years in prison in 2018, the only evidence they presented against him were forced confessions. Every lawyer he tried to hire was rejected by the court, so he defended himself.

It’s not uncommon for Iran’s hostages to face preposterous charges. Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American journalist for the Washington Post who was held in Evin prison for 544 days on false espionage charges between 2014 and 2016, has said that he was told that a semi-satirical Kickstarter he launched to start Iran’s first avocado farm (he’s a guacamole fan) was proof of involvement in a CIA plot.

For about a year after my father’s arrest we thought there had been a mistake”

Ashoori’s first three months of detention were particularly awful. He has said that he was held in solitary confinement, subjected to sleep deprivation and other forms of ill-treatment, and forced to sign the ‘confessions’ that the judge later cited as evidence of his guilt. He went on hunger strike for 17 days, one of three attempts to take his own life. He was denied any contact with the outside world. “We had no idea where he was,” Izadi told me. “When they finally allowed him to ring us, the first thing he said was, ‘Do not under any circumstances come to Iran. Even if you hear I’m dead, that I’ve killed myself, do not come to Iran’.” This warning saw him punished with more solitary confinement and ill-treatment. But he believed it necessary because his captors had told him that his family members were also spies, who were being surveilled by Iranian agents. They implied that they had visited his daughter’s stall and tasted the macarons, and watched his wife walk Romeo, their rescue dog. They told him he would never see his family again, and falsely said that his wife was having an affair and had already moved on. Again, this is standard practice – Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who spent nine months in solitary confinement, was falsely told that her husband was cheating on her.

The family of Anoosheh Ashoori, including his wife Sherry Izadi (c), daughter Elika (r) and son Aryan (l) stage a protest opposite Downing Street joined by Richard Ratcliffe (rear left) and Lewisham East MP Janet Daby (rear right), 13th August 2021. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

For the first 10 months of Ashoori’s imprisonment, during which he was moved to various parts of the Evin prison compound and, briefly, to a separate detention centre he believed was run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the hardline military organisation that has huge political and economic power in the country, his family were on their own. In June 2018 they contacted the Foreign Office, which urged them to say nothing. The government’s preferred approach of ‘quiet diplomacy’ means we don’t know for certain how many dual nationals with British citizenship are still held by Iran. There’s environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who has been held for four years and who holds Iranian, American and British citizenship. There’s also labour rights activist ​​Mehran Raoof, a British-Iranian dual national held in Evin since October 2020. There may be others.

The family’s public campaign to free Ashoori didn’t begin until two years after his capture, when Izadi awoke to a message from the Foreign Office saying her husband had been denounced as a spy on Iranian TV. “Actually, they got it wrong the first time,” Elika explained. “There’s a female astronaut called Anousheh Ansari and they accused her of being a spy before having to correct their mistake.” It was a baptism of fire. “That was a dark day,” Izadi told me, recounting how her children began getting phone calls from reporters almost immediately. Elika remembered crying when being pressed for a quote. The public campaign to free Ashoori had begun, whether they liked it or not.

We’ve still got a life, family and friends. But he’s stuck there”

Ashoori followed the campaign keenly from Evin, where he shared a room with 15 other prisoners. They were constantly battling cockroaches and rats, open sewage pipes flowed through their tiny shared courtyard, and the atmosphere among them was so toxic that Ashoori spent as much time as he could in the library and in marquetry classes, anything to get away from the oppressive environment. “We tell him pretty much everything about the campaign,” Izadi said. “Even if there’s no progress, the fact that we are engaged in this campaign lifts his spirits, and every day when we speak he asks for updates. If there’s a tweet or post by a celebrity in support of him he wants to know how many likes it got.” When actor Patrick Stewart tweeted in support of his campaign, Ashoori, a huge Trekkie, reciprocated by making a model of his hand emblazoned with the Vulcan salute, ‘Live Long and Prosper’, in his woodwork class.

Calling the UK from Evin was a convoluted process. International calls weren’t possible, so Ashoori called his 90-year-old mother who in turn called Izadi on WhatsApp, and the couple chatted over speakerphone. “He likes talking about normal things because it brings back a sense of how things used to be,” Sherry told me. “He’ll ask if I’ve taken Romeo for a walk, or if the boiler is working OK… The calls are vital to his mental health. We’ve still got each other, we’ve still got a life, family and friends. But he’s stuck there. We’re his anchor to the outside world. In the six months when our contact was limited he went round the bend.”

Evin prison, where both Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were held, has been operational since 1972; in February 1986 prisoners in Evin were forced to make military clothing for the Iran-Iraq War. Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Ashoori’s six-month phone ban in early 2020 – he could occasionally reach his family with the help of other prisoners – was punishment for recordings he sent via his wife to the British press. In one message he talked about the period early in his detention in which he tried to take his own life, when he reached what he described as his “threshold of pain”. In another he described the appalling living conditions at Evin, and how he was denied medical treatments such as safe dental care for his gum disease [the Evin dentist “basically pulled teeth”, said Izadi]. He spoke about the spread of Covid-19 and how the crowded, unsanitary conditions in prison meant he could be “one breath away from death”.

Izadi believes her husband did catch Covid. “He was never tested but he was extremely ill for a month. I recorded him and sent the recording to the Foreign Office because he could barely get a word out due to his illness,” she said. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Iran granted temporary release to about 85,000 prisoners in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. Ashoori was not among them.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, however, was granted furlough from prison and was transferred to her parents’ house, where she remained until she gained her freedom. Ashoori’s wife and daughter believe that one reason the hostages received different treatment was because a year earlier then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt had granted Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection, a rarely-used legal tool which meant that her imprisonment was raised from a consular matter to a state issue, a dispute between the UK and Iran.

The family’s efforts to secure diplomatic protection for Ashoori were a source of anger and frustration. “Basically there are three criteria for diplomatic protection,” Izadi explained. “You have to prove that all legal avenues have been explored, that your human rights have been violated, and the third one, the tricky one when you are technically dual nationals, is you have to prove that your dominant nationality is British.” The difficulties the family experienced while trying to prove their Britishness was “a deeply disappointing way of finding out that you’re a second-class citizen,” Izadi said, stressing that the whole family had been naturalised and were as British as anyone else.

“The worst thing about campaigning has been putting so much energy into trying to prove that he’s British, that he deserves to be here,” said Elika. This perceived lack of Britishness caused another problem. Elika says that part of the reason they often had an uphill battle getting media coverage is because Ashoori is “not white, not young, not a mum, he looks Middle Eastern, we’re not cute little children.” Elika stressed that they had nothing but respect and admiration for Ratcliffe and appreciated his support, but said that while things improved towards the end, it was painful having to rely on the Nazanin campaign just to get noticed and acknowledged. The family’s lawyers put together Ashoori’s application for diplomatic protection, and after waiting many months they were given a meeting with foreign secretary Liz Truss in November 2021. They were told the Foreign Office had decided against diplomatic protection, at least for the time being, even though he met all the criteria.

On 16th October 2021, five months before the charade of a legitimate legal process was put to bed by the transfer of around £400 million into an Iranian bank account, Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe both lost appeals in the courts. The former had appealed for conditional release, the latter against a further year in prison on new propaganda charges. The failure of his wife’s appeal spurred Ratcliffe to go on hunger strike eight days later. On 23rd January 2022, Ashoori began his own.

The origins of the situation that saw Ashoori begin his final hunger strike in Evin prison lie more than 40 years earlier and 10 kilometres to the south. On 4th November 1979, 52 US diplomats and citizens were held after a group of Iranian revolutionary students seized the American embassy in Tehran. Among the detainees was an idealistic young man from Brooklyn, who had fallen in love with Iran while volunteering in the country for the Peace Corps in the late 1960s. Barry Rosen devoured Persian poetry, learned the Farsi language and returned to Iran years later to become the press attaché at the US embassy.

When the last Shah of Iran was overthrown by groups loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic was established, Rosen chose to stay in a land he considered his second home. But on that day in November, students chanting “Death to America” scaled the embassy walls, broke into the building and took the staff hostage. Rosen and his colleagues were treated cruelly, subjected to beatings, mock executions and other forms of torture. During his imprisonment, which lasted for over a year, much of which was spent in Evin, he was entirely cut off from the world. He spent a total of 20 minutes outdoors.

A blindfolded American hostage with his hands tied up following the storming of the US embassy in Tehran, 11th November 1979. Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

After 444 days Rosen and the other hostages were released. He returned home to his young family – his daughter, Ariana, a baby when he left, didn’t recognise him. There hasn’t been a day since his release, he said, when he hasn’t thought about Iran. And when he heard about the cases of hostages such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe, separated from her own infant daughter, and Siamak Namazi – an Iranian-American businessman held in Evin since 2015 on trumped-up spying charges – he could relate to their predicament.

“I got up one morning and I said to myself, ‘I have to do something’,” Rosen told me in early February. “I’m 77 years old and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around.” On 20th January 2022, the 41st anniversary of his release, he found himself standing outside the Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna, the location for the Iran nuclear talks, wearing a beanie hat saying #FreeTheHostages and refusing to eat until his demands were met. He was swiftly thrust back into a world of political intrigue. “I was staying at Palais Coburg and the Iranian delegation there must have said something to the hotel because the police guarded me and escorted me in and out of my room every day… I think the Iranians considered me a security risk.”

I got up one morning and said to myself, ‘I have to do something’”

Joining Rosen in his hunger strike in the Austrian capital was another former Evin inmate. Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese permanent resident of the US, spent nearly four years in the prison after being arrested in September 2015 and charged with spying. An IT expert and advocate for internet freedom, Zakka had been invited to speak at a conference in Tehran by then-vice-president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. He was kidnapped en route to the airport, sent to a prison run by the IRGC, and later transferred to Evin. He spent almost a year in solitary confinement and went on several hunger strikes to protest against his unjust detention.

Zakka was unsurprised to hear the news that Ashoori had decided to go on his own hunger strike in solidarity – they were once cellmates. “Mr Ashoori is a great person,” said Zakka, who had returned to his family in Washington DC after his initial release to Lebanon in June 2019. “He is so strong, such a wise person and always trying to help people.”

Zakka was determined to begin his fight against state hostage-taking as soon as he got out of Iran. “A few months after my release I worked with people like Richard [Ratcliffe] to bring the families [of hostages in Iran] to the UN general assembly in New York, and we established a hostage alliance.” Rosen is a board member of Hostage Aid Worldwide, the alliance Zakka set up, along with Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic held hostage by Iran for more than two years, and Xiyue Wang, an American academic who was held in Evin for more than three years.

Rosen and Zakka’s trip was a success. In press interviews and meetings with the key western negotiators in Vienna they made their demands clear – there must be no new nuclear deal with Iran unless it releases all its hostages, and sanctions must be reimposed if they ever took more people. Rosen said that in their meeting with the British team they appeared to make little progress, but with the US special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, there seemed to be a breakthrough. In a 23rd January interview with Reuters in Vienna, the American diplomat appeared to subtly shift from a position long held by all the western countries engaged in the nuclear talks, that the hostage negotiations were entirely separate from the nuclear ones. “It is very hard to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran,” he said. Malley’s statement only referred to American hostages, but Rosen and Zakka hoped that the European countries with citizens stuck in Iran might be corralled – or shamed – into a similar change of mindset. After Malley made his statement Rosen, Zakka and Ashoori agreed to end their hunger strike. Rosen left Austria exhausted but elated. “I had no idea, really, that my campaign would get the focus it did,” he said. “I was so amazed by how many people seemed to support me, left, right and centre.”

Former hostage Barry Rosen speaks to journalists outside the Coburg Palace hotel in Vienna, Austria on 14th January 2022. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

For former hostages like Rosen and Zakka, campaigning against hostage-taking stirs up some painful memories. But it can also be beneficial. Zakka describes his work at Hostage Aid Worldwide as his “therapy”. When he left Evin he promised the people he left behind that he would fight for them on the outside. “I feel good about my work,” he told me. “I feel like I’m facing my challenges, but other [released hostages] might need to put it behind them and try to start a new life.”

While securing Malley’s statement was significant, for Zakka it wasn’t the most important achievement in Austria. “When you are inside they [the Iranian authorities] want you to believe that nobody is asking about you, that you have been forgotten,” he explained. “I went to Vienna because I wanted the hostages to know that they haven’t been forgotten. When I was on the inside and I talked to my family and they told me that somebody had tweeted in support of me, I felt so good. Just a tweet meant so much to me. That’s what I hoped to give the hostages, I just wanted to give them strength.”

The state-sponsored kidnapping of individuals to be used as bargaining chips is often called ‘hostage diplomacy’. It’s a somewhat sanitised term for a practice that, in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, involved separating a mother and her 22-month-old child.

For the families and organisations trying to tackle hostage diplomacy, the fear is that more and more governments are emulating the Iranian formula. North Korea, Russia and Venezuela have all taken foreign prisoners on dubious charges in recent years. When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted the US to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the religious scholar accused of masterminding a failed military coup in 2016, an American pastor working in the coastal city of Izmir, Andrew Brunson, was detained on terror charges. Erdogan publicly called for a prisoner swap.

Most worryingly, the world’s second biggest economy appears to have developed a taste for hostage-taking. Nine days after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver in 2018 on suspicion of violating US sanctions against Iran, two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were arrested and detained in China on baseless spying charges. When the US justice department reached an agreement to allow Meng to return home, the “two Michaels” were released within hours. Hostage diplomacy is a brazenly immoral act – but judging by its growing popularity, it seems to deliver results.

Rachel Briggs, former executive director of nonprofit support group Hostage US, believes that hostage diplomacy is on the rise. It’s impossible to provide numbers, she told me, because due to a preference for ‘quiet diplomacy’, governments won’t reveal them, and in some cases families of hostages don’t seek consular help. “But I’ve been working on hostage issues for 20 years, including running two organisations that provided help to families when they were going through this, and I’ve definitely seen the caseload increase,” she said.

Various proposals to fight state hostage-taking have been floated by experts and campaign groups. The Free Nazanin campaign’s legal team at human rights NGO Redress lobbied the British government to tackle Iran’s hostage diplomacy by imposing sanctions on the officials believed to be responsible. They argued that by targeting individuals with ‘Magnitsky’-style sanctions, like the ones imposed on those deemed responsible for the death in custody of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, the perpetrators might think twice in the future about the use of a tactic that until now has largely been free of consequences.

At Hostage Aid Worldwide, meanwhile, Zakka has been working on another approach to confront state hostage-taking – the creation of an extensive database on hostage-takings that could enable him to use data to assess risk and answer questions such as which people are most likely to be targeted, and when and where they are most likely to be arrested. In the Iranian case, he explained, hostage diplomacy is not just a pillar of the country’s foreign policy, but a business model. He used an anecdote to illustrate his point. “In January 2016, Jason Rezaian was released,” he recalled. “The day he was released they moved me to his cell, in his place. We were products. One was sold, and another took its place. It’s like we were in a supermarket.” Zakka said that he is looking for ways to disrupt this business model.

We were products. One was sold, another took its place”

But the key element currently missing in the fight against state hostage-taking is multilateralism. Near the top of Rosen and Zakka’s agenda in Vienna was to urge countries participating in the nuclear talks with citizens unjustly held by Iran to take advantage of the opportunity to show strength in numbers – to join forces to get their hostages out and ensure nobody else is taken in the future. They strongly believe that a multilateral approach – rather than the haphazard and disjointed unilateral campaigns individual countries have waged against Iran in the past with minimal success – is needed.

One challenge in establishing a multilateral approach to tackling Iran’s hostage diplomacy, however, is the fact that Tehran has had specific outcomes in mind for each of its bargaining chips. In the case of Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iran’s demand was clear long before the pair’s recent release. It wanted its money back.

Here’s the nutshell version of a long, complex story. In the 1970s the Shah of Iran paid upfront for more than 1,500 Chieftain tanks from International Military Services (IMS), a subsidiary of Britain’s Ministry of Defence. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979 the Islamic Republic cancelled the deal and demanded a refund for the undelivered tanks. Iran took the UK to an international court of arbitration in 1990, won its case 11 years later, and the UK lost its final appeal against the court’s ruling in 2009. According to international law, IMS owed Iran nearly £400 million plus interest.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were told, both directly and indirectly, that their detention was linked to the debt. Sherry Izadi told me how her husband first heard about it. He was sitting in a courtroom corridor, waiting for his turn to see a judge, when someone sat down next to him and asked if he knew the real reason he had been taken. When Ashoori said he didn’t, he was told that Britain owes Iran money.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were told that their detention was linked to a debt originating to an unfulfilled order for 1,500 Chieftain tanks such as this one pictured, being driven by Prince Charles in June 1985. Photo: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

The topic of the debt had long been shrouded in secrecy, and after his meeting at the Foreign Office during his hunger strike, Richard Ratcliffe said that officials “clammed up” when he asked about it. But in recent years there has been a gradual shift in the government position on the debt – from zero transparency, to a quiet acknowledgement of its existence but a denial of its link to the British detainees, to efforts to get it paid and get the hostages released. Iran had never hidden the fact that a quid pro quo was an option. Janet Daby, Ashoori’s MP in the Lewisham East constituency, told me that she recently spoke to Iran’s ambassador in the UK. I asked her whether he mentioned the debt. “Oh yes, oh yes, they want their money back,” she replied. “They said there was an agreement in place some time ago on how to give this money back through humanitarian ways, through aid. They said that they had a plan in place with the UK and then it came to a standstill, but they didn’t feel there was any sufficient reason as to why the UK did not follow through with the agreements that had been put in place.”

The British government often claimed that international sanctions on the Iranian regime made such a payment tricky. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s legal team always insisted that there was a clear legal path to paying the debt, possibly involving humanitarian aid instead of money. One option that was floated was to closely emulate what Barack Obama did in January 2016 to end a remarkably similar case. He sent a plane to Iran carrying $400 million in cash, piled up on pallets, the first instalment of a $1.7 billion payment owed to Tehran for military equipment that hadn’t been delivered decades earlier. Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post was among the four hostages freed hours before the cash landed on the tarmac.

Shortly after Ratcliffe finished his November 2021 hunger strike, Jeremy Hunt asked the prime minister if the UK could “fly a crate of cash” to Tehran. Johnson said the idea was “worth considering”. There were concerns over the optics, however. Critics of Obama’s decision, the most vociferous of whom held state department jobs in the Donald Trump administration, described it as a ransom payment which sent a clear message to the hardliners of the IRGC – if you want to recover an unpaid debt, take a hostage. And they may have had a point. Just two and a half months after Rezaian was released from Evin prison, Zaghari-Ratcliffe became its newest resident.

In February 2022, Boris Johnson tellingly failed to issue a denial when Tulip Siddiq MP asked for confirmation that the UK had signed an agreement with Iran to pay the IMS debt the previous summer, but that it fell through. Watching the prime minister’s response in her parents’ house in Tehran, Zaghari-Ratcliffe had fumed. Had she just spent eight additional months away from her family for nothing? Had her husband nearly starved himself to death for nothing?

“When it ended I went to hospital, and they were quite worried,” Richard Ratcliffe told me on 16th February 2022, a month before his nightmare ended. “Hunger strikes are quite well documented in terms of what happens to your body, but most are documented in detention centres and prisons,” he explained. “These people are in warm, dry places that are emotionally very alienating, and mine was the opposite – cold and wet, but emotionally quite uplifting with lots of nice, kind people coming along. They didn’t know how those two variables would impact me.”

Ratcliffe told me that he lost 12 kilograms, about 15 percent of his body weight, and was in hospital for tests every other day for a week and a half. Parts of his body, he said, went “a bit crazy” when he reintroduced it to food, and his appetite returned before he was able to physically handle eating in normal quantities.

“Emotionally it took longer to get back to normal,” he continued, saying he struggled with day-to-day chores. His home was a mess and the headmaster at Gabriella’s school pleaded with him to begin dropping her off on time. “[During the protest] I kind of withdrew into myself, emotionally as well as physically, with my body shutting down. [Recovery] is like relearning empathy. By the end of the hunger strike I was still competent at expounding my views on the government, but in terms of the give-and-take of normal life, having friends call up glum and having the time and space to listen and engage properly, well, that took some time. My New Year’s resolution was to be normal again, and I’m still working on it.”

Richard Ratcliffe during a hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London in June 2019. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Ratcliffe was feeling more optimistic about his wife being released than he was during his hunger strike three months earlier. There had been positive signs. On 12th January 2022, Aras Amiri, an Iranian employee of the British Council in London, had been acquitted of spying charges, freed from Evin and allowed to return to the UK. It is widely assumed that her detention was linked in some way to the IMS debt, so her release may have signalled a goodwill gesture by Iran ahead of a possible deal to release other hostages. There had also been positive noises emerging from the Palais Coburg hotel. All sides in the nuclear talks, a process which began in April 2021, appeared to be close to reviving the deal.

My New Year’s resolution was to be normal again. I’m still working on it”

However, Johnson’s tacit acknowledgement that a deal to release the British hostages had fallen through hinted at a troubling possibility. Ratcliffe said that he thought it likely that it collapsed because the hostage talks had become enmeshed in the nuclear talks, and that the IMS debt hadn’t been paid because it had been moved into a larger framework for a multilateral nuclear deal further down the line. An Iranian diplomat, Abbas Araghchi, had claimed on Twitter in August that it broke down due to US pressure on the Foreign Office.

“I think the Brits had the choice to bring back Nazanin and Anoosheh, and they decided not to,” Ratcliffe told me. But while his wife was “full of rage” after hearing about the summer 2021 deal that didn’t happen, Ratcliffe took it as a positive sign – we got so close, and we could get close again.

He said that there were “reasons to be hopeful that we might be near an end”, but he was preparing for further obstacles. “Emotionally I’m fundamentally guarded so I’m not planning for this to be over in six weeks,” he said. “I’m planning for what we’ll have to do in April and May… Last Easter, [former foreign secretary] Dominic Raab was very confident it would be solved, and the Easter before that they were very confident it would be solved.”

I asked Ratcliffe if he ever allowed himself to think about what life will be like when his wife finally comes home. “No, not at all,” he replied. He’s had too many setbacks, too many disappointments. “But Nazanin for sure spends an awful lot of time thinking about what life will be like when she comes back.”

On 16th March 2022, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe did come back, and Anoosheh Ashoori came back with her. As the freed hostages emerged at the door of a government-chartered plane late that night, Zaghari-Ratcliffe wearing a yellow scarf and holding a handbag, Ashoori clutching a New Scientist supplement on the origins of life on Earth, Elika began an Instagram livestream.

“Is that mummy?” asked Gabriella, peering through the large glass windows of a drab-looking waiting room at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, her reflection visible in Elika’s camera phone. The pair descended the plane stairs. “Mummy!” she cried.

A few moments later both families were whole again. The ordeal had lasted 2,174 days for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 1,672 days for Ashoori. The UK had paid its historic debt to Iran, and just like that, the suffering was over.

In the coming months questions will need to be answered. Why did it take so long to pay the debt, which was ultimately channelled via the US and the Swiss embassy in Tehran to circumvent sanctions? And why now? The hostages have always been pawns in a bigger game, and there’s a sense that behind the scenes the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the geopolitical calculus on both sides. Had Iranian oil become a factor? What does this mean for the nuclear talks, which had been put on pause five days earlier when negotiators hit stumbling blocks over new Russian sanctions?

And what does it mean for the hostages who remain? Morad Tahbaz, the only British hostage who was born in the UK, is still in Iran, as is Mehran Raoof and possibly others; some may have taken the Foreign Office’s advice to pursue ‘quiet diplomacy’. The Iranians consider Tahbaz to be American rather than British; Liz Truss announced that he had been released on furlough and reunited with his family in Iran, but he was taken back to his Evin cell two days later.

Sherry Izadi is certain that her husband will continue to fight for Tahbaz, Raoof and the others unjustly detained in Iran’s prisons. “Knowing him, because he’s so empathetic to others, I wonder how he will find being free knowing his friends are still there,” she said to me in January. “How will he cope with the survivor’s guilt? I know that the minute he’s out he’s going to be trying to support others.”

Morad Tahbaz, the only British hostage who was born in the UK, is still in Iran, as is Mehran Raoof”

She said her husband has plans to put all those prison marquetry and woodwork classes to good use and sell his wares to raise money for the families of the hostages he left behind. Ashoori has other long-term ambitions: a book based on his prison journals, an attempt to run the London Marathon.

Now, in the days after his release, it’s all about the simple things: sleeping in his own bed, giving the dogs a cuddle, eating a slice of Elika’s welcome home cake, watching Star Trek, drinking his first beer in five years. His release came days before Nowruz, the Persian new year, and three weeks before his birthday. The celebrations will be extra special this year.

The family understands that healing won’t happen overnight. “I think this kind of experience changes you on an almost cellular level,” Izadi told me. “The trauma, it is lifelong,” added Elika. “For him and for all of us too. I know it won’t end when he comes back. It will just be the beginning of another chapter. How do we deal with all the injustices that have happened? We will want answers. We will want someone to be answerable for all the time he has lost.”

When I spoke to Nizar Zakka I asked him whether he had been able to return to normal life after his release. “The difficult thing is that it’s not the same world that you return to,” he replied. “When you get out you feel so much pain over what happened during your absence on the outside. What happened on the inside is a challenge you can face and overcome, but when you go outside and see so many people [family and friends] acting like you never existed, that’s what’s really painful…” Feeling abandoned by friends is a sentiment shared by many hostages, as well as their family members; Elika told me that some of her oldest friends stopped talking to her, either because they think there’s no smoke without fire, or because they’re worried about the consequences of associating with her.

“So personally, no I haven’t been able to move on, to forget,” said Zakka. “Look at Kylie [Moore-Gilbert], she is still fighting. Look at Jason [Rezaian], he is still fighting. Look at Xiyue [Wang], he is still fighting.”

His co-striker in Vienna is still fighting, too, decades after his release. “My captivity did so much damage to me,” Barry Rosen told me. “I mean, physically, mentally. For 40 years I’ve been dealing with it… There were many times when the PTSD would hit me and I wouldn’t know why or how. The therapy sessions were long and arduous for years and if it weren’t for my family I don’t know if I would have made it through.”

I asked him what he would say to Ashoori or Zaghari-Ratcliffe if they ever sought his advice on how to heal.

“I’d say to them, ‘Don’t feel ashamed about seeking help’,” Rosen replied. “‘If it means going through intensive therapy, go, cry. The biggest problem you will face is that there is no why. You will have to go through it again and again and again to understand that there is no why. There is no reason why you were taken. You didn’t do anything wrong. You have to, somehow, come to terms with that.’”

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