'Unexpectedly close cooperation' between UK and Tehran over Briton believed kidnapped from Dubai

Relatives and friends of Abbas Yazasanpanah Yazdi, who has not been seen for six weeks, say they believe he has been smuggled out of the UAE to Iran after being lured to Fujairah for a business meeting. Colin Randall reports

The disappearance of a Dubai-based British national, amid claims that he has been kidnapped by Iranian agents, has led to the disclosure of unexpectedly close cooperation between official UK agencies and Tehran investigators.

Relatives and friends of Abbas Yazasanpanah Yazdi, who has not been seen for six weeks, say they believe he has been smuggled out of the UAE to Iran.

There has been no trace of Mr Yazdi, 44, a father of two, since June 25, when he was seen leaving his office in Bur Dubai.

His fate is unclear, though the British foreign ministry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), says it is "very concerned" for his welfare.

"Allegations that elements in Iran might be responsible for Mr Yazdi's disappearance are plausible, and we are taking them very seriously," a UK government source told Reuters.

According to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, addresses and other details, copied from Mr Yazdi's computer by investigators from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) when he lived in London, were passed to Tehran at the request of the Iranian authorities earlier this year.

The newspaper described this as "embarrassing" for the British government. Britain currently has no formal diplomatic ties with Iran, having shut its Tehran embassy in 2011 after an attack it blamed on government-inspired militia. Iran's embassy in London was also ordered to close.

Among details on Mr Yazdi's computer file of contacts apparently handed over to Tehran were the names and addresses of friends in Iran.

Neither the SFO nor the British interior ministry, the Home Office, would comment directly on whether a country's human rights record, or the state of its relationship with the UK, was considered when deciding whether to agree to legal assistance requests.

Britain, a supporter of international sanctions against Iran over fears about Tehran's nuclear programme, is hoping for improved relations, with Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, assuming the presidency of Iran, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the cooperation between officials of the two countries on Mr Yazdi's case preceded the change of power.

Lured to Fujairah on pretext of business meeting

Meanwhile, an Iranian opposition figure in London, said he had information Mr Yazdi was abducted after being lured to Fujairah on the pretext of a business meeting.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh, director of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in the British capital, claimed the businessman was then beaten, injected with drugs and taken by boat to Iran.

He said he understood Mr Yazdi was taken initially to Tehran's Evin Prison and then transferred to a detention centre run by Revolutionary Guards.

"I am very worried for him," he said, indicating that he expected Mr Yazdi to face torture. "He is not one of those people who would open up with the first lash."

Mr Yazdi was detained for six months in Iran in 1993 amid claims he was tortured. He was later freed and fled to Britain.

Foreign affairs observers often urge caution when assessing statements by exiled Iranian opposition activists.

Mr Nourizadeh, a long-standing critic of Iran, has broadcast regularly on the United States-funded Voice of America and written for the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. In 2010, it was reported that US investigators suspected he had been the target of a murder plot by Iranian intelligence.

In an interview with The National, Mr Nourizadeh said he believed Mr Yazdi had been kidnapped as part of an effort to obtain evidence against Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the former Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mehdi Rafsanjani is a close friend of Mr Yazdi's from childhood. He lived in the UK for three years but returned to Iran in 2012 and was arrested for allegedly inciting unrest following the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

Mr Rafsanjani, a former head of the state-owned Gaz Iran, was previously accused of controlling bank accounts into which bribes from the French oil multinational Total were paid between 1997 and 2003. He denies this allegation and, in turn, claims Mr Ahmadinejad was guilty of fraud on a large scale when mayor of Tehran between 2003 and 2005.

Voluntary return to Iran unlikely

Mr Nourizadeh said five other Iranian exiles had been abducted for the same reason in Cyprus, Turkey and Georgia in recent weeks. One, he claimed, was freed after diplomatic pressure and is now in the UAE.

Pressed on the detail of the alleged abduction, Mr Nourizadeh said Mr Yazdi was called four days before his disappearance by a former business contact who once held government office in Iran.

"They had done business before some years ago and he felt he had no reason to suspect he was being double-crossed," he said. "This man had also been very close to [the former president, Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. Mr Yazdi was told they should meet to discuss a new, very good contract that did not involve Iran. I cannot identify him without putting my source in jeopardy."

Of the source, Mr Nourizadeh would say only that he was "so good at what he does that has kept suspicion away from himself".

If Mr Yazdi is now in Tehran, as Britain also seems to consider possible, it would be difficult for the Iranian authorities to insist that he returned to Iran voluntarily.

He is said by friends to be a committed family man who would not have taken such a step without discussing it with his wife, Atena.

Another theory canvassed in media reporting is that Mr Yazdi may have gone into hiding in Switzerland.

"The most terrible time of my life"

His wife, who has moved temporarily to the UK with their children, is said by friends to be "frustrated and frightened" about what may have happened to her husband. Speaking before the FCO advised her to avoid further public comment, Mrs Yazdi, 37, told The Sunday Times of London: "This is the most terrible time in my life ... I'm not coping, but I'm trying to pull myself together for my kids.

"I have no fight with any government in any country. I want to know what happened to my husband, where he is and what's going on."

Mrs Yazdi is also of Iranian origin but the couple met in the UK, where her husband obtained citizenship after being freed from detention in Iran.

Separately, she told a Dubai newspaper: "The only thing [the Dubai police] told me is that he seems to be alive. If he is still in the UAE I'm sure the police can find him. If he's in Iran, it's completely different. I hope and pray for his safety." Contacted by The National, the Dubai police had no comment on Mr Yazdi's disappearance.

Mr Yazdi had been giving evidence by video link to an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague examining a case involving the cancellation by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company of a contract with Crescent Petroleum, a privately owned oil and gas company with headquarters in Sharjah.

The Guardian's report said there was no suggestion of a connection between his status as a witness for the hearing and his disappearance the day before he was due to complete his testimony.

Mr Yazdi ran several businesses in the UK before moving to Dubai 10 years ago.

Before he left Britain, his home had been searched by Serious Fraud Office officers in connection with a Norwegian investigation into dealings between Norway's government-controlled oil and gas giant Statoil and Iranian companies, The Guardian reported. He was not charged with any offence and maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing.

The newspaper said the affair raised questions about the nature of the SFO's cooperation with Iran's State General Inspection Organisation, an arm of the Iranian judiciary. The paper noted that in a statement to the British parliament earlier this year, the SFO's international assistance unit confirmed it had co-operated with Iranian officials on criminal investigations.

Britain "willing" to send information to Iran

British officials are reluctant to explain the SFO's willingness to send information to an Iranian judicial agency.

The SFO would say only: "We can neither confirm nor deny SFO interest in this matter. Requests for international assistance are usually dealt with by the Home Office, UK central authority, which is overseen by the secretary of state."

The Home Office was no more forthcoming. A spokesperson said: "As a matter of long-standing policy and practice, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of mutual legal assistance requests."

Without directly addressing the delicate issue of cooperation with Iran, British officials argue that the UK has an international obligation to provide mutual legal assistance in certain cases. When requests are received, the Home Office can seek advice from "interested parties", including other government departments, and it is stressed that not all requests are granted.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said it would have serious concerns if "UK agencies were playing fast and loose with personal information of members of the profession. Solicitors, discharging their duty as trusted advisers to their clients, have the right to expect privacy."

The British foreign secretary William Hague raised Mr Yazdi's case with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, in a telephone conversation on July 31.

A spokesperson said: "We have asked the Iranians for any information they have about Mr Yazdi's whereabouts. We are very concerned about Mr Yazdi's welfare. We are providing consular assistance to the family at this difficult time."

The two ministers may have further talks on the sidelines of next month's UN General Assembly in New York.

An official in the Iranian interests section of the Omani embassy in London said he had no information on the case and no authority to discuss it.


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Published: August 7, 2013 04:00 AM


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