Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe talks 'go to the wire' as UK prioritises paying Iran debt

Boris Johnson confirmed a team of British negotiators are in Tehran working to secure her release

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Britain’s negotiations with Iran aimed at securing the release of dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are “going right up to the wire”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Mr Johnson said talks with Tehran over the fate of the mother of one were “moving forward” but he could not say more as “negotiations continue”.

Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, said the government’s priority is to pay Iran the £400 million ($522m) debt and reach an agreement with Tehran to allow Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, to return to Britain.

Ms Truss also made a point on Wednesday of namechecking two other dual British-Iranian citizens held in Iran – Morad Tahbaz and Anoosheh Ashoori.

Mr Tahbaz, who also holds American citizenship, is a businessman and wildlife conservationist who was arrested in Iran in 2018 with eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which he co-founded. His Canadian-Iranian colleague Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody a few weeks later in unexplained circumstances.

Mr Ashoori, a retired civil engineer, was arrested in 2017 during a visit to Tehran. Authorities accused him of spying for Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, plus an extra two for "illicitly acquiring money".

Ms Truss told Sky News on Wednesday “we are working very hard and I’ve made a priority, as foreign secretary, to secure the release of Nazanin, Anoosheh and Morad”. She said the Conservative-led government had also “made it a priority to pay the debt that we owe to Iran”.

Ms Truss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the three detainees and their families had “faced unimaginable suffering” as a result of Iran’s actions. She declined to say whether a deal to secure the release of one was more likely to happen than an agreement on the release of all three.

“I am doing all I can to secure their release,” she said.

Hopes were raised on Tuesday that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe might finally be freed after six years when a London MP disclosed that her British passport had been returned to her.

Labour’s Tulip Siddiq said Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been talking about coming back to the UK as “the day that she’s been dreaming about for six years now”.

The MP for Hampstead and Kilburn represents the constituency where Mr Ratcliffe and his daughter live.

“We know that there is a British negotiating team in Iran, and it’s difficult to think why they would be there if there wasn’t some leeway in what was happening, that there may be some progress made on the case. Certainly Richard [Nazanin's husband] is feeling hopeful," the MP told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday.

“I also was in touch with Nazanin as well, who definitely sounds a bit more stressed and a bit more nervous than Richard does. But at the same time is talking about coming home, being reunited with her husband and her daughter, being back at home in West Hampstead and saying that this is the day that she’s been dreaming about for six years now.”

At the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi during a visit to the UAE on Wednesday, Mr Johnson confirmed there was a British team in the Iranian capital negotiating for her release.

“It is true and it has been for a long time that we’re negotiating for the release of our dual nationals in Tehran,” the prime minister said.

“There are some very sad cases, including Nazanin.

“I really don’t think I should say much more, I’m sorry, although things are moving forward.

“I shouldn’t really say much more right now just because those negotiations continue to be under way and we’re going right up to the wire.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 as she prepared to fly back to the UK, having taken her daughter Gabriella – not yet two years old at the time – to see relatives.

She was accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government and sentenced to five years in jail, spending four years in Tehran’s Evin Prison and one under house arrest.

The British government and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe deny the allegations.

Ms Siddiq said Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is at her family home in Tehran while discussions are ongoing.

Ms Truss told Sky News that Britain is exploring ways to pay Iran the £400 million debt it owes.

The sum relates to an order of 1,500 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles that Tehran had paid the UK for before London cancelled the contract in the wake of the 1979 revolution in Iran.

She acknowledged the sum of cash is “a legitimate debt that the United Kingdom owes Iran” and said “we are looking for ways to pay it”.

She declined to elaborate on the possible ways in which the money could be repaid and refused to say whether Iran had already received the lump sum.

“It’s a desperate situation and my heart is with the families who have suffered so greatly,” Ms Truss said.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 10:42 AM