Boris Johnson has told Sky News he feels a “deep sense of anguish” for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother jailed in Tehran on spying charges, but he has rejected any responsibility for her continuing plight.
The Conservative leadership contender faced criticism when, as foreign secretary, he incorrectly stated that she was “teaching people journalism” in Iran despite relatives insisting she was visiting family.
Mr Johnson’s comments were seized on by the Tehran regime and used against the charity worker, who remains in prison.
Former Tory Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin, who heads Jeremy Hunt’s campaign to be the next prime minister, said the language Mr Johnson had previously used about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe “has not helped the case”.
Speaking to Sophy Ridge On Sunday, Mr Johnson insisted the Iranian authorities were solely to blame for her suffering.
His comments came as the 40-year-old ended a 15-day hunger strike she started in protest at her “unfair imprisonment”.
The mother of one was arrested at Tehran airport while travelling with her young daughter in April 2016 and sentenced to five years in jail after being accused of espionage – a charge she vehemently denies.
Pressed on her case, Mr Johnson said: “I feel sorry for her, for her daughter, for her husband Richard and I’ve said this many, many times. I feel a deep sense of anguish for what she has been going through.”
However, he added: “When it comes to responsibility for what she is suffering I think that is incredibly important that we in the UK do not unwittingly give aid and succour to the people who are really responsible.
“Which is not the Foreign Office, not the former foreign secretary, and no one in London is responsible for incarcerating Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
“The people who are responsible are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and anything you do to exculpate them is, I think, a great shame.”
Speaking to Sky News after the Mr Johnson interview, Mr Ratcliffe said he was glad to hear that Mr Johnson feels anguish but that there was a responsibility he needed to take.
He said: “He’s right, the Iranian authorities imprisoned her, there’s no ambiguity around that, but his comments didn’t help and the way he conducted himself afterwards didn’t help.
“It is key that there was a failure to take responsibility.”
Mr Ratcliffe, who has been on hunger strike at the same time as his wife, said it was a matter for Mr Johnson’s conscience on whether he took responsibility.
He said whoever becomes the next prime minister will “inherit” their problem, and they will push for the new leader to make it clear that holding British citizens in this way is not acceptable.
Mr Ratcliffe has previously said Mr Johnson’s comments had “very traumatic consequences for her” as they were used to discredit his wife and justify a further trial.
Confronted with this, Mr Johnson said: “Of course, I do feel a deep sense of anguish about it as I have said and I have apologised… but it is very very important that in this conversation we don’t allow whatever I may have said or done to cloud the issue.”
He argued that only Iran was to blame for imprisoning Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and added: “They are doing it illegally, they are doing it inhumanely and they should release her and others, and I think it’s very very important that we focus on that message.”
But Liberal Demcorat leadership hopeful Jo Swinson criticised Mr Johnson over his approach to the case, telling Ridge that: “Boris actually doesn’t really care about anything but himself”.
She said: “He didn’t care about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, he said he felt anguish, showed no evidence of it whatsoever in the way in which he hadn’t even bothered to read his brief when he was appearing in front of a select committee and you had that woman languishing in an Iranian jail, separated from her young daughter.
“I mean, he just doesn’t care.”
During a wide-ranging interview, Ridge also tackled the would-be prime minister on other issues. Here is what he had to say:
“If it’s borrowing to finance great infrastructure projects and there is an opportunity to borrow at low rates and do things for the long term benefit of the country then we should do them.
“I’m prepared to borrow to finance certain great objectives but overall we will keep fiscal responsibility and keep going with the general trajectory of ensuring that this country pays its way and lives within its means.”
On tax cuts
“I think we should be looking at lifting people on low incomes out of tax, lifting the thresholds for National Insurance.”
On suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit
“I don’t want to prorogue parliament nor do I expect to. I don’t think that’s going to be necessary and I think that it’s far more important that MPs focus on where we are.”
On the refusal of EU leaders to renegotiate the divorce agreement
“Well I think it’s possibly the case that they would say that at this particular stage in the negotiations. You would expect them to say that kind of thing.”
On the threat of tariffs in the event of no deal
“I think it would be very very strange if the EU was to go for a solution in which their vehicles coming to the UK, in huge numbers by the way, face tariffs.
“That’s not the way to go. It doesn’t make any sense. The way forward is to have a standstill in the current arrangements.”
On his “f*** business” comment
“My words have been totally taken out of context.
“I was being told that there was absolutely no way that the UK could leave the single market and the customs union and that we would have to stay run by the EU, and I don’t think that is the case.”
Mr Johnson also defended articles in which he described black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers, and described gay people as “tank-topped bum boys”.
He argued the quotations had been “wrenched out of context”.
Responding, Labour’s shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler said: “Boris Johnson’s defence of his racist and homophobic comments is despicable and disappointing.
“At a time when racist and homophobic hate crime is rising in our society, his refusal to apologise for his disgusting remarks legitimises and fuels this prejudice.”
“He is not fit to be prime minister of our country,” she added.
:: Watch The Battle for Number 10: Jeremy Hunt on Sky News tomorrow at 7pm.
Boris Johnson has told Sky News he feels a “deep sense of anguish” for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother jailed in Tehran on spying charges, but he has rejected any responsibility for her continuing plight. The Conservative leadership contender faced criticism when, as foreign secretary, he incorrectly stated that she was “teaching people journalism” in Iran despite relatives insisting she was visiting family.