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Boris Johnson set to visit Iran in effort to secure charity worker’s release

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson gives a speech on terrorism at the Foreign Office in London on Thursday © PA

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UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson is expected to visit Iran this weekend, intensifying a diplomatic drive to secure release of a British-Iranian woman detained for 20 months.

Mr Johnson is calling for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker who is said to be close to a nervous breakdown, to be released on humanitarian grounds. Last month he was forced to apologise after saying she had been “teaching people journalism” when she was arrested.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family and her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, say she was in fact on holiday.

The British government had sought to keep Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case out of the headlines since her detention. But the domestic political furore, combined with news reports on Iranian state media, turned it into a key priority for the foreign secretary.

His visit comes after a report on Iranian state media last month suggested Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be released on parole in time for Christmas, having served one-third of her five-year term.

“The judiciary has no problem with releasing her but the Revolutionary Guards [which arrested her] have resisted an early release,” said a reform-minded analyst in Tehran. “A visit by Mr Johnson would mean those inside the regime who care about relations with the UK and Europe have managed to win this case.”

Iran is walking a tightrope in its relations with Europe, amid increasing pressure from the US and regional rivals, notably Saudi Arabia. It hopes improved ties with Europe will help save the landmark nuclear accord signed in 2015.

Britain has been a strong supporter of the Iranian nuclear deal, but has complaints about Tehran’s involvement in conflicts across the Middle East. On Thursday Mr Johnson gave a speech calling for Britain to re-engage in the region, including doing “more to resolve the conflict in Yemen”. Iran is widely suspected of arming the Houthi rebels in the Yemeni conflict.

Mr Johnson’s speech made only one direct reference to Iran — saying that Britain’s decision not to intervene military in Syria in August 2013 had left “the pitch wide open for Russia and Iran”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has had only intermittent access to her young daughter since being arrested in April 2016. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has been denied a visa to enter Iran since his wife’s detention. He has pushed for her to be released in time to spend Christmas with her family.

The UK has denied her case is linked to a longstanding British £400m debt to Iran, which has remained unpaid due to sanctions on the country’s military. But Mr Ratcliffe has said that paying the debt would encourage Iran to comply with its own international obligations.

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