Topher Richwhite, Bridget Thackwray: New Zealand didn't enter into deal to secure release of influencers from Iran - Grant Robertson

New Zealand didn't enter into a deal to secure the release of two Kiwi influencers trapped in Iran since July, the acting Prime Minister says.

"There is no deal. There is nothing in return. Absolutely not," said Grant Robertson, who is acting Prime Minister while Jacinda Ardern is in Antarctica. 

"These people weren't in a position to leave Iran. But now that they are, it's clear that the discussions and the negotiations that happened worked. 

"Every situation is different. A person in prison is different from a person not in prison. A person who is a hostage is different from a person who is in prison. It's always different. But I can absolutely guarantee you no deal has been done."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) confirmed on Wednesday morning the pair, Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray, had left Iran and were "safe and well". They entered Iran in July as part of an 'Expedition Earth' world tour they were documenting on their social media accounts. 

Newshub understands the Iranian regime was restricting their movements and they couldn't leave without the intervention of the Government.

Robertson repeatedly said at Parliament on Wednesday afternoon that the pair had been unable to leave Iran. He wouldn't say the pair were detained by Iranian authorities.

"I don't think I want to characterise the situation in a way that might be misleading. So they could not leave Iran. They have been assisted to be able to do that."

It is similar language to what Ardern used on Wednesday morning when she said the New Zealand Government had been working hard for several months "to ensure the safe exit" of the pair.

Robertson acknowledged there were a number of scenarios that may have prevented the couple from leaving Iran, but said it was up to Richwhite, Thackwray and their families to discuss what had happened.

"There are a number of reasons why, people have to travel and they have to have documents to travel," he said. "They have to be in a position to be able to safely get to their next destination. There are always a range of reasons why people can't leave the country."

New Zealand has had a 'Do Not Travel' advisory in place for Iran since 2020. Robertson wouldn't say if the pair were irresponsible by entering the country.

"I'm not going to comment specifically on that, but any traveller should always be aware of the rules and the laws in a country that they are in. They should respect their hosts and in the case of Iran, our travel advice is very clear… I think we've been very clear New Zealanders shouldn't be in Iran."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced on Wednesday morning the Government was stepping up its official travel advice for Iran. That came before news broke of Richwhite and Thackwray's release.

"The new advice for Iran reiterates the existing “Do Not Travel” warning, and adds that due to the potential for violent civil unrest, the risk of arrest or detention and the volatile security situation in the region, the risk to safety in Iran is significant," said Mahuta.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has warned against travel to Iran since early 2020. New Zealanders currently in Iran are advised to leave. Protests are continuing throughout the country, and there has been an increased number of foreign nationals arrested."

Robertson said it was "not the current plan" to expel the Iranian Ambassador to New Zealand, who was called in by Government officials last month after the death of a 22-year-old in police custody sparked protests.

"We will obviously continue to try to influence Iran to uphold human rights, uphold the rights of women. We have condemned the situation in Iran, the death of the woman there, the unacceptable limitation of rights on women and other minorities."

Robertson said Mahuta raised the situation with the Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister in a meeting last month. 

"The message clearly was that, you know, where there are people who are New Zealanders who are in another country who want to leave, that we believe that they should be able to leave," he said.

Newshub understands Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deliberately toned down her criticism of recent issues in Iran to avoid upsetting the regime and jeopardising the release of the two Kiwis.

But Ardern said on Wednesday morning the Government has been very clear in condemning Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Iranian died earlier this year while in police custody, prompting protests across Iran and around the world in opposition to the Iranian regime's treatment of women.

"At all times, we have been aware, over the past several months, of the circumstances of the two New Zealanders in Iran and, of course, worked very hard to ensure their safe exit," Ardern said.

"At the same time, we have wanted to be very clear on New Zealand's position on the protests in Iran and the death of an Iranian woman under circumstances  which we are utterly opposed to. I believe that we have done both."

Ardern also wouldn't comment on whether the couple's trip into Iran was irresponsible. She said it was up to the couple and their family to release further information.

"I am aware of just how incredibly difficult it has been for them and their family over these past few months."

The Prime Minister said the news that the pair had been released came with "great relief".

"I am delighted they are safe."