image Photo: Reuters

Iran releases hostages as UK pays $530m debt

British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and dual national Anoosheh Ashoori have arrived in the United Kingdom after being released from the Islamic Republic.

By Erin Viner

The pair were freed after the UK ‘repaid an historic debt,’ reported Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

The Ayatollah regime claimed it was owed 400 million pounds (about $530 or €480.2) that the former Shah of Iran paid Britain for the purchase of 1,750 Chieftain tanks and other vehicles. Almost none of the deliveries were made after the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the United States-backed monarch.

“It has been a really difficult 48 hours,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said shortly after Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori arrived at the Brize Norton in Oxfordshire early this morning after flying back via a brief stopover in Oman.

“The expectation was that they would be released but we weren’t sure right until the last minute, so it’s been very emotional but also a really happy moment for the families,” she added.

Separately, Britain said detained Iranian-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British citizenship, was released on furlough yesterday, Secretary Truss said on Twitter, adding that the UK “will continue to work to secure Morad’s departure from Iran.”

While both Tehran and London maintain there was no connection between the debt and the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in 2021 Iranian state media reported unnamed Tehran officials saying she would be released once the money was paid.

As months of talks in Vienna with world powers to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal neared an agreement in February, the Islamic Republic, which holds a dozen Western dual nationals, announced it was ready for a prisoner swap in return for the unblocking of frozen assets and release of Iranians held in prisons abroad. Many analysts view the holding of the dual nations as bargaining chips in Iran’s talks with the West over its nuclear program.

The nuclear talks were close to an agreement 11 days ago until last-minute Russian demands for sweeping guarantees that would have hollowed out sanctions imposed following its 24 February invasion of Ukraine that have derailed the negotiations. Diplomats say Moscow currently appears to have narrowed its demands to cover only work linked to the nuclear deal – leaving a small number of issues to be resolved between Washington and Tehran.

Secretary Truss said the UK has been searching for avenues to pay the debt.

“We have the deepest admiration for the resolve, courage and determination Nazanin, Anoosheh and Morad, and their families, have shown. They have faced hardship that no family should ever experience and this is a moment of great relief,” she said in a statement.

“In parallel, we have also settled the IMS (International Military Services) debt, as we said we would,” she added, referring to the debt for military equipment. She said the debt had “been settled in full in compliance with UK and international sanctions and all legal obligations,” emphasizing that the funds would be “ring-fenced solely for the purchase of humanitarian goods.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Wednesday that the UK had paid its debt a few days ago while denying any link between the payment and the prisoner release.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, then an employee for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) at Tehran airport on 3 April 2016 while trying to return to the UK with her then 22-month-old daughter Gabriella after spending the Iranian new year with her parents. An Iranian court subsequently convicted her of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment, a charge rejected by her family and the foundation.

Ashoori was sentenced to a 10-year prison term in 2019 on charges of spying for Israel’s Mossad espionage agency, with an additional two years for what the Iranian judiciary called the “acquisition of illegitimate wealth.”

“I am very pleased to confirm that the unfair detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashoori in Iran has ended today, and they will now return to the UK,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter Wednesday after the two dual nationals boarded planes out of the Islamic Republic.