In among the relief and euphoria that attended the return to Britain of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and businessman Anoosheh Ashoori from Iranian jails in March, one family was feeling precisely the opposite emotions. The Foreign Office deal that finally brought Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori home was always supposed to involve three British prisoners. Morad Tahbaz, 66, has been incarcerated in Tehran for four years.
Right up until a week before the deal was made, the Tahbaz family had been told categorically by Liz Truss’s department that Morad – along with his wife, Vida, 64, currently subject to a travel ban in Iran – would be part of any agreement. No one would be left behind. They discovered the truth only when they saw the television news.
Roxanne Tahbaz, the couple’s eldest daughter, lives in south-west London. When I spoke to her at her home last week, she was still reliving the despair of seeing those TV pictures. For the previous four years, the Tahbaz family had followed British government advice and not spoken to the media, so as “not to jeopardize any negotiations”. They were in a more complicated situation than Richard Ratcliffe, campaigning in the UK for his wife, since Vida Tahbaz was trapped in Tehran.
Roxanne has a brother and a sister. “Our biggest concern was that because we were the only non-public family, we’d be forgotten,” she says. “They were like, ‘no, no. They’re definitely in the deal ‘. ”
Tahbaz’s situation is complicated by the fact that he is tri-national; he has US and Iranian passports as well as his British one. Twice previously, the British government had mooted to the family that a deal might be possible in which Tahbaz could be freed from prison but, unlike the others, held in Iran.
“We vehemently disagreed with that approach,” Roxanne says. “We were quite certain that if they did that, as soon as the others were back home, they’d put him back in prison. And that’s exactly what happened. ”
Tahbaz was released from the notorious Evin jail when the deal happened. He was returned there 48 hours later.
Four foreign secretaries have overseen the case: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Truss. The family felt that Hunt displayed proper empathy. They haven’t heard directly from Truss since December, when, Roxanne says, “she gave a personal reassurance that my father wouldn’t be left behind”.
Tahbaz had been working on animal conservation projects in Iran, on and off, for a decade when he was arrested in 2018. “My mum had just gone over to keep him company,” Roxanne recalls. “He’s an entrepreneur. He started in commercial property development. And then, when he was partly retired, he founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. It was a passion project, working to monitor endangered species. ”
Iranian authorities arrested Tahbaz along with eight other heritage foundation colleagues. The group were accused of espionage after tracking species with cameras. A UK government committee found no evidence to support that claim. In November 2019, Tahbaz was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “contacts with the US enemy government”.
“The Foreign Office has told us the Iranians decided that my father is American,” Roxanne says. “From where we’re sitting, it’s not up to Iran to say. He was born in London, in Hammersmith hospital, a mile up the road from here. He went to school in the UK from the age of four and only then went to university in the States. My mum [also tri-national] has had a British passport since they got married [nearly 40 years ago]. ”
Roxanne can’t allow herself to think that the British government abandoned her father in order to win some quick, positive headlines. But still, the triumphant tone of the Foreign Office messaging was hard to take. “They were making public statements congratulating themselves on their skilful negotiations,” she says. “And we were thinking: excuse me?”
She was unable to talk properly to her father in the 48 hours he was out of prison. “He had guards with him all the time. Every hour that passed, we thought he’d be taken away. Later that week, they took him out of prison again, this time just for 24 hours. It was then that he decided to start a hunger strike, because he couldn’t take it any more. ”
After nine days, the family persuaded Tahbaz to start eating. He was already in vulnerable health having survived two different cancers in the last decade, which have left him requiring regular monitoring and treatment. That is only one of the reasons why Roxanne finds it hard to think about him in prison. Does she know the circumstances in which she’s being held?
“She tries not to talk about it,” she says. “I think he’s so conscious of the fact that he’s still our dad. He gets a chance to call for about two minutes, very infrequently. And then he’s always like, ‘I love you. I miss you. Tell me what’s happening in your life? What’s going on at work? Can I give you any advice? ‘
“He’s always been that kind of dad. My mum was always the light of the room. And my father was always very collected, calm. ”
And she never knows when he will call?
“Sometimes my mum can connect us [on speaker] and sometimes she can’t. I drive everyone crazy with ‘phantom phone syndrome’. If I wake up in the night, and my phone’s lit up, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, did I miss him?’ I take my phone everywhere, to the gym, to the bathroom. ”
Unless you’ve lived that life, Roxanne says, you can’t imagine what every day is like: “Richard [Ratcliffe] said it best: we’re all a part of a club that nobody wants to be a member of. My mum became quite close with Nazanin, because when Nazanin was out of prison on furlough, they spent time together. She was so wonderful to my mum. And Richard, on this side, was always a guiding light for us. When they did their press conference after Nazanin got home, they rang me the night before and said, ‘we’d like to invite you to come and make a statement because it isn’t right, what has happened’. ”
Roxanne talked to her brother and sister, and her aunts and uncles. “We took a family vote – everything’s done by committee – and basically decided, if we don’t go public now, my father will never come out.”
She stayed up all that night drafting a statement, and was “a basket of nerves, because I never was a public speaker”. In the fortnight after that, she did nearly 50 news interviews. She lives in fear of saying the wrong thing.
“The worst thing is that the moment you wake up, you’re always a bit broken. Even if it’s a birthday, you feel guilty to feel any happiness. ”
Roxanne has continued to work as a business consultant while keeping up her campaigning. “There are days where I’m just helpless,” she says. “My boyfriend is brilliant. He’ll be: ‘What do you want to eat? Do you want to have a bath? You want a drink? ‘ I sit there and I’m like: ‘I don’t know’. ”
Then, a lot of the rest of the time, she says: “You feel it’s like that adrenaline rush when a kid is under a car and the mum finds the strength to lift it. And you think: how long do I have to be this strong? ”
Amnesty International has declared Tahbaz a “prisoner of conscience”. After we speak, Roxanne has a meeting to discuss progress on their campaign calling on the government to tell the family their plans to secure his release. Unlike Labor MP Tulip Siddiq, who campaigned so vocally for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Roxanne’s MP, the Conservative Felicity Buchan, counsels silence, in line with the Foreign Office.
“From the beginning, there was a weekly catch-up call with the family or an email. But ever since the other two were released, the only update we’ve had is: ‘we’re working on everything at the highest levels’, ”Roxanne says. “That’s not enough any more.”
The Observer contacted Buchan’s office for comment, but did not receive a reply.
The family has continued to receive support from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who raised Tahbaz’s fate when she met the prime minister at Downing Street.
In paying the historic debt to Iran of £ 400m, to ease the release of the two other prisoners, she fears that the British government has played its hand. “What’s left for my father now? What’s the next move? Because this felt like a checkmate moment.
“And two months later we’re still sitting on the side, waiting.”