British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is facing further pressure after Iranian state TV claimed that his statements on the plight of a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Tehran on charges of espionage confirmed her guilt.
Johnson has already been forced to correct remarks he made to a British parliamentary committee last week, when he said that Nazanin Zagahri-Ratcliffe, who has been in jail since she was detained at Tehran airport in April 2016, had been teaching journalism during her visit to the country.
After Johnson’s original comments, authorities in Iran filed further charges against Zagahri-Ratcliffe, prompting fears her five-year sentence could be extended. On Wednesday, Iranian state TV IRIB said Johnson amounted to an unintentional confession.
“It seems Boris Johnson’s remarks repudiated all the claims that we’ve seen in the past year and a half from British media and government officials who were saying Nazanine Zaghari-Ratcliffe had come to Iran for humanitarian purposes,” IRIB reported.
The IRB report said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s role with the Thomson Reuters Foundation amounted to working for a “multi-national company established with the aim of promoting Western-style democracy.”
The Free Nazanin Campaign released a statement saying that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s Iranian parents were distressed by the state media report. “Nazanin’s parents watched the main evening news in growing horror last night. They remain in a state of shock and disbelief,” the statement said.
Earlier this week, the head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation rejected the allegations and instead urged Johnson to meet with her.
“Nazanin has never trained journalists in Iran and we are pleased that he has admitted to the Iranian Foreign Minister that she was in Iran purely on holiday,” Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation said in a statement.
“It’s time now for the Foreign Secretary to meet Nazanin in jail, as he proposed last week, and to bring her back home.”
On Tuesday, amid an outcry from Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband and fellow lawmakers, Johnson held a call with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in an attempt to clarify his remarks and call for her release. He admitted that his comments to the parliamentary committee “could have been clearer,” and added that he was “sorry” if his remarks were misconstrued.
During the call, Johnson “expressed concern at the suggestion from the Iranian Judiciary High Council for Human Rights that his remarks last week at the Foreign Affairs Committee ‘shed new light’ on the case,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement.
“The Foreign Secretary said this was absolutely not true. It was clear, as it always had been, that Mrs. Zaghari Ratcliffe had been in Iran on holiday when arrested.”
“The Foreign Secretary concluded by emphasizing that his remarks could form no justifiable basis for further action in this case and urged the Iranian authorities to release Mrs Zaghari Ratcliffe on humanitarian grounds.”
Fellow Conservative MP Anna Soubry described Johnson’s remarks as “appalling,” writing on Twitter that “in ‘normal’ times” the Foreign Secretary would have been “sacked long ago.”
Opposition Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper also registered her disgust on Twitter, writing: “Hard to find words for how appalling this is. For him it’s just another lazy, arrogant failure to check facts. For her it’s incarceration.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held on allegations relating to espionage, has denied the charges, always maintaining that she was in Tehran to visit family and was not working in the country at the time of her arrest.
She was detained at the airport in Tehran in April 2016 on her way back to the UK from visiting family with Gabriella, her then 22-month-old daughter.
The Iranian government accused her of working for a UK media network involved in activities against Iran. She was sentenced to five years in jail and her child was placed in the care of her parents.
Last month, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) opened a new case against her, accusing her of having joined organizations specifically working to overthrow the regime. She was also charged with having attended a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in London.
In September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that his hands were tied on the issue of dual nationals imprisoned in his country.
In October, when the new charges were filed, husband Richard Ratcliffe said the British government should be doing more to help his wife, and that it should not be making business deals with the regime that has imprisoned her.