Britain has “taken every precaution” to ensure the almost £400 million debt paid to Iran will not be used to buy arms, a government minister said.
The money was transferred to Tehran more than four decades after the UK government cancelled a contract for military vehicles for which the Iranians had already paid.
Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said officials had to work around international and British sanctions against Iran to come up with a deal to solve the dispute.
Dual British-Iranian citizens Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, who had been detained in Iran, were released on Wednesday and flown back to be reunited with their families in the UK.
On the same day Britain announced it had paid the £393.8 million ($516m) historic debt owed to Iran. The sum related to an order of 1,500 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles from the UK that Tehran had paid for before London cancelled the contract after the 1979 revolution in Iran.
Mr Cleverly said the processing of paying the money was highly complicated because of international and British sanctions against Iran.
Mr Cleverly said Iran has “a significant and meaningful humanitarian requirement” and it had taken “a huge amount of work to come up with a method ensuring that money is for humanitarian purposes”.
“You cannot just write a cheque, it doesn’t work like that,” he told Sky News.
Mr Cleverly said while dealing with Iranian government officials had been “incredibly difficult” the change of power in 2021 had “definitely helped”.
“Because of the huge number of sanctions, quite rightly applied to Iran, all these things become very, very tricky, very, very difficult. But ultimately we never gave up, we continued working, we continued supporting the families.”
Asked why the UK had waited so long to pay the debt to Iran, as it had been instructed to do by the International Court of Arbitration, he cited difficulties in dealing with Iranian officials.
“One of the big problems, of course, is because of Iran’s behaviour, because of things they have chosen to do, there are a huge number of international sanctions against them, and UK sanctions. So it is technically not easy [to pay a debt]. We were able to come to an arrangement – the details of which I’m not allowed to discuss, they’re confidential – whereby we can ensure that the money is for humanitarian purposes only and that we’ve been able to do a deal which does fit within the international sanctions regime that’s imposed against Iran.”
Pressed on whether he felt confident the Iranians would not be able to use the cash to buy arms, Mr Cleverly said Britain had “taken every precaution” to ensure the money is used exclusively for humanitarian purposes.
Morad Tahbaz, a third British-Iranian citizen detained in Iran, did not make it on to the plane leaving Tehran on Wednesday. In its negotiations with Iran, the UK government managed to secure his release from prison but could not get him out of the country.
Mr Cleverly said Mr Tahbaz’s US citizenship had complicated the situation on the Iranian side, but insisted: “We are going to keep working to get him home, to get him fully and properly released.”
Mr Tahbaz, who was born in Hammersmith, west London, was being kept in Evin prison in Tehran on charges of espionage after he used cameras to track endangered species as part of his conservation work.
Mr Cleverly said he had “enormous admiration” for the families of dual citizens detained in Iran.
On Wednesday he posted a photo of the reunited Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori families on Twitter and praised the detainees’ relatives for showing “love and dedication”.
“So great to see Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori back home with their families,” the MP tweeted.
“Such love and dedication.
“Yesterday was a good day at work.”