Even as she entered the airport clutching her British passport for the first time in six years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she could not believe she was finally about to return home to her husband and daughter.
The last moments of her ordeal in Iran, where she had been held by the regime, in effect as a hostage, on trumped-up charges, were far from straightforward and fraught with anxieties.
Speaking to her MP, Tulip Siddiq, on Thursday night, Zaghari-Ratcliffe described how even at the airport in Tehran, there were still ongoing conversations between Iranian and UK officials. Nothing was straightforward.
As she arrived to board the flight, a reporter from an Iranian news channel appeared, one she recognised and who had previously spread misinformation about her before one of her earlier trials, to try and bounce her into an interview.
Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn who has been a vociferous and dogged campaigner for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom, spoke to her on Thursday for the first time since she landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband, Richard, who mounted a worldwide publicity campaign to free his wife, are now staying in a safe house with their seven-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to give the family who have spent so many years apart some privacy and downtime before they return home to north London.
“Nazanin’s last 24 hours in Tehran were eventful and far from straightforward. She told me about the whirlwind of being taken to Tehran airport and hurried conversations with officials from both Iran and the UK,” Siddiq said.
“The news channel who spread misinformation about her during earlier trials even tried to corner her for a cloak and dagger interview in a corner of the airport. Right up until the last minute she was pushing back against the machinations of the Iranian authorities.”
Siddiq described their conversation as intense and uplifting, having spoken with Zaghari-Ratcliffe many times previously while she was in prison and under house arrest. “She is over the moon to be home but exhausted at the same time. She told me that it all still feels surreal, like a dream,” Siddiq said.
The British-Iranian dual national was arrested in 2016 when Gabriella was 22 months old, accused of various implausible charges linked to her work at the BBC World Service Trust and Thomson Reuters Foundation. During her detention she was described as a “diplomatic pawn”, held until the UK paid a historic £400m debt for tanks sold but not delivered.
“Gabriella has already attached herself to her mother like an extra limb, besides herself with excitement to have both parents in the room at the same time for the first time in six years,” Siddiq said. “For Nazanin, Gabriella is all she can talk about. They can’t stop hugging each other and kissing.
“They then all collapsed into one bed, all three of them and fell asleep, Gabriella in the middle of her parents. She says all day Gabriella looks like she’s beside herself with excitement.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe told Siddiq she was impatient to begin her involvement in her seven-year-old daughter’s life in London, which she has missed so much of since they have been separated.
“Nazanin is eager to learn more about her daughter’s school, her life and her community in West Hampstead. While Richard has of course kept Nazanin updated over the period of her imprisonment, she wants to get to know the people involved in her daughter’s life and become part of it again.”
Siddiq said it would take time for Zaghari-Ratcliffe to process the trauma of what had happened and to feel safe again. “She says she still doesn’t believe it, but her sleep deprived status is adding to the confusion,” Siddiq said.
“Throughout our conversation, Nazanin must have used the word ‘blissful’ half a dozen times, which took some getting used to given that I am used to her calling me under house arrest with an ankle tag.
“Richard and Gabriella have both changed a lot in the last six years, and they want to get to know each other again and make up for lost time. She said she was going to stay low for a bit, but I am hoping that in time we will be able to host her in parliament to celebrate her freedom and the frankly inspiring work of her husband, Richard, and his family in campaigning for her release.”
Siddiq said Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent a long time in their conversation expressing her gratitude for those involved in campaigning for her release, which she said would be a “long process” of thanking many people. “She may have been detained in Iran for six years, but she’s always been a constituent of mine and a part of the community in Hampstead and Kilburn, which never gave up on her,” she said.
“It’s crazy to think that I still haven’t met Nazanin, but I feel like after six years of campaigning for her freedom I know her well. Nazanin is undoubtedly a woman of steel, and I was amazed by how calm and composed she seemed after what must have been the most chaotic and uncertain of weeks.”