Boris Johnson has admitted he “could have been clearer” in his comments about British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and was “sorry” if his remarks were misconstrued.
The Foreign Secretary has faced calls to quit after telling a committee of MPs last week that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists in Iran at the time of her arrest last year, something her employer and her family insist is incorrect.
But in the Commons Mr Johnson said the UK Government “has no doubt that she was on holiday” in Iran and that was the sole purpose of her visit and he insisted his remarks could provide no reason for lengthening her sentence.
He said he was concerned at suggestions from Tehran that his remarks last week to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee were being used as justification to increase Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s jail term.
Before updating MPs in the Commons, Mr Johnson told his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif there was “no justifiable basis” for further legal action against Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Mr Johnson’s phone conversation with Mr Zarif came after Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year jail sentence for supposed involvement in a coup plot, was summoned before an Iranian court on Saturday to be told she was now facing allegations of “propaganda against the state”.
Her family fear that this charge could lead to a further five years’ imprisonment.
The Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights said Mr Johnson’s comments to the Foreign Affairs Committee had “shed new light on the realities about Nazanin”, contradicting her defence that she was in the country for a holiday at the time of her 2016 arrest.
Both her husband Richard and her employer the Thomson Reuters Foundation had urged Mr Johnson to correct his comments.
In the Commons Mr Johnson said: “I’m sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context and so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety for the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, of course I am.”
The Foreign Secretary said he had voiced “concern at the suggestion emanating from one branch of the Iranian judiciary that my remarks to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week had some bearing on Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case”.
“The UK Government has no doubt that she was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year and that was the sole purpose of her visit.
“My point was that I disagreed with the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime – not that I wanted to lend any credence to Iranian allegations that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been engaged in such activity.
“I accept that my remarks could have been clearer in that respect and I’m glad to provide this clarification.”
He added: “Mr Zarif told me that any recent developments in the case had no link to my testimony last week and he would continue to seek a solution on humanitarian grounds.”
Mr Johnson said he will discuss all the UK’s consular cases when he visits Iran in the coming weeks.
Mr Ratcliffe said Mr Johnson’s comments were “pretty much what I was asking for”.
He told the Press Association “that’s not an acknowledgement of error but it is a clarification” and an “important correction”.
Mr Ratcliffe said the Foreign Secretary should visit his wife while he is in Iran, and asked for a meeting with Mr Johnson before he heads to Tehran.
He also called for the British Embassy in Tehran to issue a statement clarifying the situation.
Downing Street said Theresa May still had “full confidence” in her Foreign Secretary.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “The Foreign Secretary is doing a good job and working hard to represent Britain’s interests abroad.”
Speaking before Mr Johnson’s phone call, his Cabinet colleague Liam Fox described his comments to the Foreign Affairs Committee as a “slip of the tongue”, adding “we have got to be very careful that we are not overreacting to this”.
Dr Fox told Sky News: “I don’t believe that it is a serious gaffe.”
But shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “What will it take before the Prime Minister says enough is enough?
“But if the truth is she can’t, because she doesn’t have the strength or authority to sack him, how about the Foreign Secretary himself shows a bit of personal responsibility and admits that a job like this, where your words hold gravity and your actions have consequences, it is simply not the job for him.”
Tory former minister Anna Soubry tore into Mr Johnson: “The lack of contrition is as shameful as the original error. Boris Johnson doesn’t understand the magnitude of the job and responsibility he holds.”
The row was sparked after Mr Johnson told the parliamentary committee on November 1: “When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit.”