UK urges Iran to free ‘hostages’ including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is due to meet her Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in New York

Britain’s new foreign secretary has been urged to revive a deal to free three UK citizens who are detained.

Liz Truss is due to meet her Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday to discuss the detention of Anoosheh Ashoori, a retired engineer, aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and conservationist Morad Tahbaz.

All three hold British and Iranian citizenship; Mr Tahbaz also has a US passport.

A deal to release them collapsed this summer, and Ms Truss’s predecessor Dominic Raab has spoken of his frustration that they had not been freed. The families believe the agreement is still on the table.

In a telephone call on Sunday, Mr Ashoori’s wife urged Ms Truss to continue to lobby Tehran.

Sherry Izadi, whose husband was jailed for 10 years on charges of spying for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, said the UK government told her in August it had come tantalisingly close to striking a deal. She did not specify the terms.

Had it succeeded, Mr Ashoori would have been released at the time of talks in Vienna aimed at bringing Iran and the US back into a 2015 nuclear accord. The talks in Austria were unsuccessful.

“I asked her [Truss]: ‘Will you still be pursuing that deal?' and she said ‘yes’,” Ms Izadi said.

“Today is our wedding anniversary, our 37th, and the fifth that we have missed. Hopefully, it will be the last one.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, also spoke to Ms Truss on Sunday.

He had sent her department a list of 10 Iranians linked to what he called the “hostage-taking industry”, and said they should face sanctions.

His wife was detained in April 2016 after being convicted over security charges.

When her sentence ended, she was forbidden from leaving Iran and faced a new charge. She is on bail, and could be returned to prison if convicted.

Mr Ratcliffe and Ms Izadi believe the fate of their spouses is tied to an unpaid £400 million ($547.1m) debt the UK owes Iran.

Tehran had ordered tanks from Britain, but when the shah was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, they were not supplied to the new regime.

The prisoners’ families have urged the UK to end the financial stand-off, which continues to rumble through the courts.

They say it is a positive sign that Ms Truss has spoken to them within days of taking office after a government reshuffle.

Before she left the UK, Ms Truss said: “I will be asking Iran to ensure the immediate and permanent release of all arbitrarily detained British nationals in Iran, and to begin working with us to mend our fractured relations.

“The UK, US and our international partners are fully committed to a nuclear deal, but every day that Iran continues to delay talks whilst escalating its own nuclear programme means there is less space for diplomacy.”

Her Foreign Office colleague James Cleverly, the Middle East minister, said negotiating with the Iranian leadership was never easy.

“We will continue pushing and we will not rest until we get them all home,” he told Sky News. “She’s an incredibly focused and energetic minister – she’s well regarded for that – and I have no doubt that she will apply that energy to these negotiations.”

Updated: September 20th 2021, 5:16 PM