Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is seen with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella in an undated photograph handed out by her family © Reuters
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Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, has called for the release of a British woman held in Tehran, days after he appeared to jeopardise her safety by wrongly claiming that she had been “teaching people journalism” in Iran.
Mr Johnson called Mohammad Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart, on Tuesday morning to express “concern” that his remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been misinterpreted.
The UK Foreign Office said Mr Johnson “accepts he could have been clearer” when he mentioned her case in parliament last week. “The foreign secretary made clear that the point he had been seeking to make . . . was that he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that he believed Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity,” it said.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual national, was brought to court in Iran on Saturday, three days after Mr Johnson’s initial remarks, and accused of spreading propaganda. An official Iranian website later claimed that Mr Johnson’s comments had “shed new light” on her case. It said they proved that she was not on holiday when she was detained last April, as claimed by her family and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, her employer.
Iran has arrested several dual nationals in the past two years. Analysts in Iran say the arrests are part of a power struggle within the regime in Tehran. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was with her daughter Gabriella, was sentenced to five years for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. She denies all the allegations against her.
In his call with Mr Johnson on Monday, Mr Zarif said that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s court appearance was “unrelated to the foreign secretary’s remarks”. Mr Johnson hopes to visit Iran this year and is willing to visit Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison.
Monique Villa, chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, urged Mr Johnson to meet her and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family. “This would be the first time he would have met us since Nazanin was jailed 19 months ago,” she said in a statement.
The episode has provoked domestic political fury at Mr Johnson, with opposition parties calling for his dismissal. “When will Theresa May sack this dangerous clown?” Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, said on Monday night.
But the foreign secretary received support from Downing Street, which said he was doing a “good job”. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, told the BBC: “We all make slips of the tongue and I think we have to be clear we’re not over-reacting to this. This should not have happened in the first place. This is a very, very aggressive, unacceptable way to treat a UK citizen.”
Mr Johnson is due to travel to Washington on Tuesday to lobby in favour of maintaining the nuclear deal with Iran.
The foreign secretary also spoke to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a stand-off with Iran over its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Separately, Downing Street confirmed that Priti Patel, the international development secretary, had proposed giving British aid money to the Israeli army, after returning from a secret trip to the country. Ms Patel apologised on Monday, and confirmed that she had held 12 meetings with Israeli politicians including Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and organisations during a “family holiday” in August.
Downing Street said there had been “no change in policy”, despite Ms Patel’s suggestion that the UK could give money to Israeli forces in the Golan Heights to deal with Syrians affected by civil war. Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967, is illegal under international law.
A spokesman could not clarify what other changes Ms Patel had suggested following her trip. In a statement, she also mentioned commissioning work “on disability”. Ms Patel has been a vocal advocate of using Britain’s aid budget more efficiently.
In response to accusations that Ms Patel has been operating a freelance foreign policy, Downing Street said that “on no other occasion while a minister has she organised meetings with foreign governments outside the normal channels while on holiday”.