Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband dreams of wife's release by Christmas

Richard Ratcliffe and wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

London (CNN)Richard Ratcliffe is relentless.

On Wednesday, after two weeks of constant interviews, writing press releases and telling the story of his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to the world, he will meet British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to discuss how he can secure her release from an Iranian jail.
It is a significant milestone in a story that began 19 months ago when Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was detained at Tehran airport on suspicion of spying -- claims which she and her family vehemently deny.
What initially appeared to be an administrative error quickly escalated, and Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison. The couple's daughter, Gabriella, now three, was given over to her grandparents in Iran, while Richard Ratcliffe has fought for his wife's release from his home in Britain.
    In a quirk of fate, the meeting with Johnson would almost certainly be not happening were it not for an ill-judged remark by the famously off-the-cuff politician, which set off an avalanche of criticism surrounding the British government's handling of the case.
    But Ratcliffe is acutely aware that the sudden focus on the case will not necessarily result in an instant breakthrough for his wife.
    "I've been promising her for quite a long time that it will be over soon," Ratcliffe told CNN. "It can feel like quite an empty promise."
    Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella.

    Johnson blunder

    The renewed attention on the Free Nazanin campaign, led by Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband and an army of supporters, came two weeks ago when Johnson, appearing before a British parliamentary committee, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been detained for teaching journalism during her visit to Iran.
    The remark directly contradicted the position of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family, her employer, and, not least, the British government, all of whom maintain that she was on vacation when she was arrested.
    The comments were particularly insensitive as Iran views with deep suspicion any attempt to foster an independent media in the country. But Johnson's blunder also fed into a wider political narrative that he is an ineffective foreign secretary, lacking a grasp of the fine detail of policy that is essential in sensitive diplomatic situations. That propelled Zaghari-Ratcliffe's story to the top of the news agenda in the UK.
    Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is set to visit Iran before the end of 2017.
    The seriousness of Johnson's error became apparent days later when Zaghari-Ratcliffe was summoned to an unscheduled court hearing, at which the foreign secretary's remarks were cited as proof that she had engaged in "propaganda against the regime."
    Fears have grown that her five-year sentence could be lengthened.
    But for all the political swirl, Ratcliffe is only focusing on one thing -- his family.
    He worries for his wife, who has endured interrogation, launched a hunger strike, and most recently was taken to hospital after discovering lumps in her breasts.
    The only insights Ratcliffe gains into his wife's mental or physical state come during their phone calls, which normally take place every Sunday.
    Some calls are harder than others, he says. Zaghari-Ratcliffe can spend the entire time crying down the phone.
    Other times she talks about she has been knitting and sewing new outfits for her daughter, who she sees twice a week.
    "Sometimes when we speak she can be tearful and distraught," Ratcliffe says.
    "When I spoke to her on Sunday she was all four seasons. She was laughing about Gabriella and what she had done and then was angry at other things."
    Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held in an Iranian prison.
    While he fears for his wife's health and safety, Ratcliffe is also aware that his relationship with Gabriella is changing.
    "It has been a long time since I saw Gabriella and I think she clearly noticed that she's lost her mummy and her daddy's not around," he says.
    "She's understanding she's different to other children that her mummy and daddy don't pick her up from nursery."

    'Panicking'

    Today's grim situation seemed so improbable on March 17, 2016, when Zaghari-Ratcliffe flew to Tehran with Gabriella to visit her family.
    Ratcliffe remembers the day clearly, talking about how Gabriella would cope on the flight and how she might behave.
    He was looking forward to collecting them on their return from Iran and hearing all about their trip.
    But when Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Gabriella were supposed to leave for the UK, the trouble began.
    Ratcliffe says he had initially been told that his wife would return home after a "passport issue" had been resolved and put on a flight back to the UK the day after her scheduled departure.
    Ratcliffe says it was three days before he heard from her. She had called her parents to say she was safe, was helping police with some inquiries and would be home soon.
    Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella.
    But Zaghari-Ratcliffe never left Iran. Instead she was imprisoned and interrogated.
    "I was sitting at home half understanding and panicking and not doing anything, discovering how dark it was and what she was going through, I felt that I really hadn't protected her," Ratcliffe says, recalling the first time he heard what had happened.
    "I just assumed that it would be OK and the government would take care of it. I thought that it was all too crazy and couldn't really be happening. I was in denial."

    'Similar stories'

    After two weeks, Ratcliffe began to approach human rights groups. He spoke with those who had experiences of being held in Iranian jails and says he began to realize his wife's story fitted a pattern.
    Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil.
    "I thought that something had happened with Nazanin over there, it was scary and everything would be OK. But when I started listening to the stories of others, they were all the same."
    The stress began to take its toll. In desperation, he went public with his campaign, creating a petition which rapidly gathered around 500,000 signatures.
    Discussions with the Foreign Office and lawyers started to give him hope, but the process has been slow.
    Then came Johnson's gaffe. "When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it," Johnson told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in what should have been a routine hearing two weeks ago.
    Johnson has since apologized, claiming his remarks "could have been clearer." He is due to travel to Iran before the end of the year and could now visit Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has requested a meeting to discuss her case.
    While it's possible that Johnson's comments could have imperiled Zaghari-Ratcliffe further, the ensuing controversy has undoubtedly raised her profile.
    Ratcliffe, while desperate to set the record straight, seized the opportunity to publicize the case.
    "It's important to put her story out there and let them know quite what level of injustice has been done," Ratcliffe says. "People say to me: 'What? No, that can't be true?'
    "This was quite a low level complaint at first. I didn't think the government was prioritizing her enough at a time where UK-Iran relations were being upgraded.
    "There was a battle for her to be a diplomatic incident and we're now on the foreign secretary's radar. Now the Iranians have used his comments to frame her it means the government has to respond."
    Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holds a '#Free Nazanin' sign and candle.
    Amid the constant media attention, Ratcliffe has still managed to keep himself and his emotions in check, while wrestling with not being able to protect his wife or daughter.
    But now, with the government appearing to make moves and his wife's story in the spotlight, he is only thinking of the future.
    "Nazanin's birthday is on December 26, it would be wonderful to have them both home for Christmas," says Ratcliffe.
    "We are both closer and further away than we have ever been."