WELLINGTON: Two travel bloggers from New Zealand who disappeared in Iran for almost four months are “safe and well” having fled after secret talks between the two governments, Wellington revealed Wednesday.
Newlyweds Bridget Thackwray and Topher Richwhite crossed from Turkey into Iran in early July, when their social media feeds - usually filled with glamorous and carefully curated shots of them in exotic locations - fell silent.
For months, some of the couple’s 300,000 fans posted increasingly anguished messages asking about their safety, with no reply. At the same time, the New Zealand government refused media requests to comment on their whereabouts.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern broke her silence, revealing that officials had been “working hard” for several months to “ensure the safe” exit of the couple, who had endured “difficult circumstances”.
The exact details of the couple’s time in Iran remain unclear.
Iranian officials told AFP that the couple had been neither detained nor arrested, and the New Zealand government was careful not to imply any formal captivity.
‘Something was wrong’
Westerners are frequently taken into custody by Iran’s hardline government - which has been at loggerheads with the United States and its allies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Detainees have languished in jails or been released after intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Many releases have included prisoner swaps, leading to accusations that Tehran is engaged in “hostage diplomacy”.
Most countries advise against any travel to Iran.
“Topher”, short for Christopher, who is in his late thirties and is the son of one of New Zealand’s wealthiest bankers, toured with a band before the couple started their world tour.
His wife Bridget, in her late twenties, founded the fashion website Fashbae in 2017, the year before they began travelling.
They travelled in an American-made Jeep 4x4 named “Gunther” after German traveller Gunther Holtorf, who visited 215 countries in 26 years before his death in 2021.
In a July video post that was later removed from social media sites, Richwhite said the couple had been stopped at the Iranian border, where the vehicle was inspected. They were instructed how to dress and behave in a tense 45-minute meeting with guards.
Canada-based fan Chris Los, a retired teacher, said the couple’s GPS tracker then stopped in the same place for several days.
“They never stay in the same place in the middle of nowhere for this long,” Los told AFP. “Because they share photos and video so openly and often, it was obvious to me that something was wrong.”
This week Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian who spent more than 800 days in Iranian jails before being released, reported that the couple were missing.
‘What a relief!’
Moore-Gilbert hailed confirmation that the couple had exited Iran as “fantastic news.”
The pair’s disappearance echoed the plight of British-Australian travel bloggers who were held in Iran in 2019, on suspicion of spying and circumventing sanctions, but who were later released.
At the same time, Australia halted the extradition of Reza Dehbashi to the United States.
A PhD student at the University of Queensland, Dehbashi had been detained on allegations of “attempting to purchase and transfer advanced American military radar equipment via Dubai to Iran”.
Ardern did not provide details of the negotiations but insisted she had not shied away from criticising Iran’s recent bloody crackdown on young protesters - many women, objecting to strict Islamic law and authoritarian rule.
“We called in the Iranian ambassador to share our views directly,” she added.
Her government has diplomatic ties with Iran and has had an embassy in Tehran since 1975 making it New Zealand’s longest-standing Middle Eastern outpost.
Iran has repeatedly accused outside forces of stirring up the protests, and in late September announced that nine foreign nationals - including from France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands - had been arrested.