Boris Johnson has admitted he feels a “deep sense of anguish” over the case of jailed British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The Conservative leadership hopeful said he feels “sorry” for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family for what they have been going through, but said responsibility lies with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Mr Johnson, appearing on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, was challenged over 2017 remarks from his time as foreign secretary in which he said Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching people journalism.
The Iranian judiciary's High Council for Human Rights at the time said Mr Johnson's statement showed that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe "had visited the country for anything but a holiday".
They added that Mr Johnson's statement "shed new light on the realities about Nazanin".
The 40-year-old was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport while travelling with her young daughter in April 2016 and sentenced to five years in jail after being accused of spying – a charge she vehemently denies.
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.”
Mr Johnson 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.”
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe recently ended a 15-day hunger strike, which was done to protest her “unfair imprisonment”, with her husband Richard also on a hunger strike and camped on the pavement outside the Iranian Embassy in London.
On Saturday, Mr Ratcliffe said his wife had decided to end her protest and had eaten some porridge with apple and banana.
Mr Ratcliffe’s belief that Mr Johnson’s words had “traumatic” effects for his wife were repeated to the MP.
He replied: “I do feel a deep sense of anguish about it as I have said and I have apologised several times in the House of Commons and elsewhere.
“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.”
Mr Johnson repeated his criticism of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and urged them to release Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others.
Conservative former cabinet minister Sir Patrick McLoughlin, a supporter of Jeremy Hunt as the next Tory leader, said Mr Johnson’s language had “not helped” Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case.
He told the same programme: “Obviously Iran is responsible for holding somebody in their jail and somebody that should be released as soon as possible.
“I think everybody has great sympathy with her family… I think some of the language that Boris has used has not helped her case.”