UK says 2 dual national detainees are returning to UK from Iran

FILE - Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of detained charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, holds his picture outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London, November 9, 2021. Iranian authorities have returned the passport of a British charity worker who has been detained for more than five years, raising hopes she could be released.  (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

FILE – Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of detained charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, holds his picture outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London, November 9, 2021. Iranian authorities have returned the passport of a British charity worker who has been detained for more than five years, raising hopes she could be released. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

PA

A plane carrying Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British charity worker detained in Iran for nearly six years, left Tehran and returned home on Wednesday, shortly after the British government settled a decades-old debt to Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British-Iranian dual national, Anoush Ashoori, detained in Tehran in 2017, boarded a plane from Mehrabad International Airport after the deal was struck. A third dual national, Morad Tahbaz, is expected to be released from prison shortly.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, tweeted that he was happy the “unjust detention” of the two men had come to an end.

“The UK has worked hard to secure their release and I am delighted that they are reunited with their families and loved ones,” he wrote.

The breakthrough came after extensive diplomacy which secured the release of the three dual nationals and led to an agreement to repay the debt in a manner consistent with UK and international sanctions. Britain has agreed to pay Iran 393.8 million pounds ($515.5 million), which will be earmarked so the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes. The UK government declined to provide details of the arrangement.

While London refused to acknowledge a link between the debt and the detention of the dual nationals, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband was candid in claiming that Iran was holding her hostage to force Britain to pay.

Debt has been a sticking point in Anglo-Iranian relations for more than 40 years.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the UK canceled a deal with the late Shah of Iran to sell the country over 1,500 Chieftain tanks. As the Shah’s government had prepaid, the new Iranian government demanded reimbursement for the tanks that were never delivered. Since then, the two countries have been negotiating the debt.

Hopes for a deal have been growing since Tuesday, when the MP who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s hometown announced that Iranian authorities had returned her passport.

Responding to questions about the talks before the deal was announced, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UK believed the debt was legitimate and the government was looking for ways to pay it off that would comply with sanctions international.

Asked if Britain would consider paying with goods such as medical equipment, Truss told Sky News she could not comment.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 on her way home to Britain from visiting family in Iran. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, but was on holiday at the time of her arrest.

The 43-year-old mother was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, a charge she, her supporters and rights groups deny. She had been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran for two years.

Johnson, as foreign secretary in 2017, complicated efforts to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe by falsely saying she was training journalists when she was arrested. He later apologized, although Iranian media repeatedly highlighted his remarks.

Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said his organization was “delighted” that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been released.

“No one can begin to imagine what Nazanin has endured over the past six torturous years; deprived of her freedoms, separated from her husband and young child, battling serious illness, thrown into solitary confinement,” Zappulla said in a statement. “An innocent victim of an international dispute, Nazanin was one of many people used as political pawns. His treatment was totally inhuman.

Human rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual nationals as a bargaining chip or influence in negotiations with the West, which Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationality, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance from their home country.

A UN panel has criticized what it describes as “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.

Ashoori was arrested in Tehran in August 2017. He had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for his alleged ties to Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, which his supporters and family have long denied.

Tahbaz, an Iranian-born British-American environmentalist, was caught in a net targeting environmental activists during a visit to Iran in January 2018. The 66-year-old served on the board of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Association, a major conservation group in Iran.

Iran convicted Tahbaz, along with seven other environmentalists, including his colleagues, of spying for the United States. He was sentenced to 10 years and taken to Evin prison.

The publication comes as negotiators in Vienna say they have nearly finalized a roadmap for the United States and Iran to join the 2015 Tehran nuclear deal with world powers. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, sparking years of tensions across the Middle East as the Islamic Republic enriches uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.

These negotiations were interrupted last week by a Russian demand that Moscow not be affected by Western sanctions for its war against Ukraine. It is unclear when they will resume in Vienna.

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Associated Press reporters Amir Vahdat in Tehran; Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report; Gambrell reported from Dubai.

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