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Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and why was she imprisoned in Iran?

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratclife is seen on a plane leaving Iran on March 16, 2022.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was imprisoned in Iran for engaging in “espionage activities” against the Islamic Republic, was formally handed over to a British team awaiting her release on Wednesday, after five years of incarceration that received unrivaled media coverage.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born in Tehran, Iran on December 26, 1978. She studied English literature at the University of Tehran. Shortly afterward, she became involved in journalism and worked for a number of Iranian newspapers, including Hamshahri. She then began to work with international organizations based in Iran.

In 2007, Zaghari-Ratcliffe moved to the UK after receiving a scholarship to study for a Master’s degree. She met her future husband, Richard Ratcliffe, shortly after her arrival in the UK. The couple married in August 2009 in Winchester.

On 3 April 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at the Imam Khomeini Airport. In early September 2016, she was sentenced to five years in prison for plotting to orchestrate a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

Training people to spread propaganda

In October 2017, the prosecutor general of Tehran stated that she was being held for running “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran.”

Both Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, had maintained she was simply visiting family while on vacation.

However, a month later, Boris Johnson, who at the time was Britain’s foreign secretary, said, “When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit.”

Johnson was later forced to retract his remarks, which had confirmed the charges leveled against her.

No link between prisoners’ release, debt repayment: Iran

Hours after her departure, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said there is no link between the repayment of Iran’s debt by the British government and the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri, another British national who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for cooperating with Israel’s spy agency Mossad and two years for obtaining 33,000 euros in “illicit funds.”

“I explicitly state that there is no connection between the [repayment] and the release of those who were arrested and tried for espionage and security charges,” Amir-Abdollahian said.

He noted that their release was the decision of Iran’s Judiciary based on humanitarian grounds, adding that reports that said there was a link between the two issues are “false” and “inaccurate.”

Reports in recent days said Britain would pay $530 million (400 million pounds) to Iran to settle a debt related to an unfulfilled military contract that dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Britain has delayed the repayment for many years citing problems faced because of foreign sanctions against Iran. The money was owed to Iran over an upfront payment made by the former Shah of Iran to Britain to buy 1,750 Chieftain tanks and other military vehicles.

The Iranian foreign minister explained that he had been in constant contact with his British counterpart, Liz Truss, over the long-overdue debt in the last four months.

“We received the amount a few days ago, but at the same time, the legal proceedings and the judicial process for the release of these two individuals continued,” he said.

Although the two issues took place around the same time, there is no connection between the two, he reiterated.

In a statement on Wednesday, Truss also confirmed that her country has settled the debt.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh thanked the constructive role played by the “brotherly and friendly country of Oman” in the process of releasing the prisoners.

Why is Zaghari-Ratcliffe so important to Britain?

According to documents obtained by Press TV, Iran’s intelligence apparatus began to work on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case long before her arrest.

The British national played a pivotal role in recruiting for BBC Persian service, targeting youngsters dissatisfied with the Iranian ruling body.

She has also participated in other projects for British and US government-affiliated companies and institutes to recruit and rank people.

Her work with the BBC continued under a project called the ZigZag Academy, which pursued two main goals, namely recruiting and training individuals for the launch of BBC Persian Service and deployment of undercover reporters in Iran to gather intelligence.

The ZigZag Academy received $3 million from the Netherland, which is among only a handful of countries that have a budget for overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also funded the project, whose main budget was provided by the British Foreign Secretary.

Although BBC refrained from announcing her as an employee, an image of her paycheck released by Press TV in 2017 shows that she had been employed by the BBC. (Read more

She was also privy to details of many similar anti-Iran projects and was involved in some of them, which recruited and trained young, aggrieved individuals to work against their country.

Under the projects, Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her colleagues divided the individuals into groups with different purposes, training some in journalism and others in acts of espionage and measures to overthrow their country’s government.

Involvement in other countries

As a result of her arrest, therefore, Iran managed to disband several espionage networks, arrest some 50 British spies, and get hold of very important documents on the UK government’s espionage activities in other countries.

The documents show that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had a special relationship with the British Foreign Office, the MI6, and Parliament, which is how she was introduced to the Thomson Reuters Foundation and started working there.

She worked for the BBC World Service Trust (now called BBC Media Action) as a training assistant, before moving to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011.

Documents that were released back in 2017 also confirm her job as a “training assistant” within the Iran team at BBC World Service Trust.

According to the documents, she was both directly and indirectly responsible for several training projects in other countries.

For instance, she was present in Egypt during the demonstrations in the Arab country in 2011. Her presence was part of a larger British scheme aimed at diverting the Egyptian revolution.

She was also associated with Mahmood Enayat, who later became the general manager of the Iran International network, a Persian propaganda news channel funded by Saudi Arabia.

Richard declined to visit his wife

During her imprisonment in the country, Iran provided her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, with firm assurances that he can travel to the country to visit his wife without being arrested.

However, due to his extensive cooperation with British intelligence services, he decided not to take the risk.

During her incarceration, Western mainstream media outlets, particularly in the UK, widely covered her case, describing her as an “aid worker,” while flatly dismissing the charges against her.

The Western media outlets frequently mentioned that she is a mother, failing to give full and balanced coverage of the details of her case as laid out by Iranian authorities and others.

Iran has repeatedly voiced readiness to exchange prisoners with hostile countries on humanitarian grounds.

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