Boris Johnson has finally admitted it was “wrong” of him to claim Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran to train journalists and apologised if he caused “any further anguish”.
Facing a storm of anger over the government’s handling of the case, the foreign secretary was forced back to the Commons on Monday to face MPs over the crisis of the British mother given a five-year sentence on allegations of spying.
Johnson has been met with fresh calls to resign from all sides for his comments to the foreign affairs committee. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family has insisted she was in Iran to visit family. Johnson’s intervention led to fears Tehran would extend the sentence.
The government’s response was further thrown into chaos after Michael Gove claimed on Sunday that he did not know what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran.
Pressed repeatedly by Labour MPs to apologise for making an incorrect statement, and admit that he had not just been misunderstood, Johnson said: “It was wrong of me to say she was there in a professional capacity, she was there on holiday, I apologise again for the distress and anxiety that those words have caused.
“I have apologised repeatedly not just for the mistake but the way it was taken.”
Johnson said: “The British government has no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday and that was the sole purpose of her visit.
“I acknowledge the words I used were open to being misinterpreted and I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I inadvertently caused them any further anguish.”
Johnson had been accused by Emily Thonrnberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, of refusing to admit he “got it wrong” for fear of hurting his own “pride”.
“For Nazanin it would be reasonable to assume if the secretary of state got involved in her case it might make things better. Unfortunately it has made it very much worse,” she said.
“After a week of obfuscation and bluster will he finally take the opportunity to state simply and unequivocally for the removal of any doubt either here or in Tehran that he simply got it wrong?
“Apologise properly,” Thornberry added. “Apologise for getting it wrong.
“If it is a matter of pride the foreign secretary is refusing to admit simply he has made a mistake then I feel bound not say to him that his pride matters not one ounce compared to Nazanin freedom.”
Downing Street has said it is considering Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection in order to speed up her release from jail in Iran.
Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, has warned his wife is on the verge of a nervous breakdown after finding lumps on her breasts.
He has appealed to be allowed to join Johnson on a trip to Iran planned by the end of the year and to visit her in jail with the foreign secretary.
And he said his family had been angered by Gove’s claim on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that he did not know what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing on her visit.
When confronted with the repeated insistence that she was on holiday, the Environment Secretary added: “In that case I take exactly her husband’s assurance in that regard.”
In an interview with the Today programme on Monday morning, Richard Ratcliffe indicated he was less than happy with Gove’s interview.
He said: “Like all these things I am in my own little bubble so I picked it up from social media and all the outrage and my cousins were very indignant about it not being very clear about what she was doing - ‘her husband says this and her husband says that’.
“So actually I wrote to the Foreign Office and said ‘listen, can you please remind your Cabinet Ministers that the Government position is that the Government has no doubt that Nazanin was there on holiday’, and I left it at that.”
Conservative MP Anna Soubry has already called for Johnson to be fired for “screwing up from the day he was appointed”.