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Two British Iranians Arrive in UK after Tehran Release

Two British Iranians Arrive in UK after Tehran Release

Wednesday, 16 March, 2022 - 11:45
An undated file photo provided by the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national detained in Iran. (Family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe via AP, file)

Two British-Iranians landed back in the United Kingdom in the early hours of Thursday morning after being freed from years of detention in Iran.

Their release on Wednesday came as the UK government confirmed it had paid a longstanding debt over a cancelled defense contract.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori touched down at RAF Brize Norton in southwest England at 01:08am (0108 GMT) after a stopover in Oman.

Footage showed the pair in the cockpit talking to the pilots of their plane, before they disembarked and walked across the tarmac together to the main airport building, where their families were waiting.

According to AFP, both appeared relaxed, smiling and waving briefly at the cameras before heading inside.

"Delighted that Nazanin and Anoosheh have landed safely in the UK and are reunited with their families and loved ones," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted. "Welcome home.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband Richard Ratcliffe had told AFP at the family home that "the first thing she always wanted to do was me make her a cup of tea".

"I'm relieved that the problems were solved," he said, standing next to their young daughter Gabriella, adding that the government should make sure "it doesn't happen again".

Ashoori's family said they were "delighted... 1,672 days ago our family's foundations were rocked when our father and husband was unjustly detained and taken away from us".

"Now, we can look forward to rebuilding those same foundations with our cornerstone back in place," they said in a statement.

UK lawmaker Tulip Siddiq, who represents the north London district where Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family live, had tweeted a photo of her constituent smiling on board a plane.

"It's been 6 long years -- and I can't believe I can FINALLY share this photo," she wrote.

The British government said a third detainee, Morad Tahbaz, who holds US, British and Iranian citizenship, was released from prison on furlough as part of the same deal.

The breakthrough was reached as world leaders try to negotiate the return of both Iran and the US to an international agreement designed to limit Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program — talks that have been complicated by the prisoner issue. Negotiators have edged closer to a roadmap for restoring the accord, though recent Russian demands slowed progress.

“Looking forward to a new life,″ said Richard Ratcliffe, who has worked tirelessly for his wife’s release and planned to greet his wife at a British military base with their 7-year old daughter, who had already picked out the toys she wants to show her mother.

“You can’t get back the time that’s gone. That’s a fact," Ratcliffe said. “But we live in the future.″

The release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori comes as the US, Britain and other countries seek to secure the release of dozens of dual nationals detained by Iran, which doesn’t recognize their right to hold citizenship in another country. Family members and human rights activists accuse Iran of arresting the dual nationals on trumped up charges to use them as bargaining chips to squeeze concessions out of Western nations.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told lawmakers that the change of government in Iran last summer had been instrumental in moving the talks forward. The recently elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-line protégé of Iran’s supreme leader known for his hostility to the West.

“I was able … to reset the relationship, to be clear that we were serious about resolving the outstanding issues that Iran had, and they were clear they were serious about resolving the outstanding issues we had,” Truss said in the House of Commons.

Wednesday’s announcement came after extensive diplomacy that secured the release of the dual nationals and led to agreement to repay the debt in a way that complies with UK and international sanctions. Britain agreed to pay Iran 393.8 million pounds ($515.5 million), which will be ring-fenced so the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes. The British government declined to offer details of the arrangement.

While the British government has refused to acknowledge a link between the debt and the detention of the dual nationals, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has been outspoken in arguing that Iran was holding her hostage to force Britain to pay.

The debt has been a sticking point in British-Iranian relations for more than 40 years.

After the revolution in 1979, the UK canceled an agreement with the late Shah of Iran to sell the country more than 1,500 Chieftain tanks. Since the shah’s government had paid in advance, the new Iranian government demanded repayment for the tanks that were never delivered. The two countries have haggled over the debt ever since.

Hope for a deal had been growing since Tuesday, when the member of Parliament who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s neighborhood in London announced that Iranian authorities had returned her passport.

Responding to questions about the talks before the deal was announced, Truss said the UK believed the debt was legitimate and the government had been looking for ways to pay it that would comply with international sanctions.

When asked whether Britain would consider paying with goods such as medical equipment, Truss told Sky News she couldn’t comment.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken into custody at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family in Iran. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, but she was on vacation at the time of her arrest.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after she was convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. She had been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran for the last two years.

Johnson, as foreign minister in 2017, complicated efforts to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe by saying incorrectly that she was training journalists when she was arrested. He later apologized, though Iranian media repeatedly pointed to his remarks.

Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said his organization was “overjoyed” that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been freed.

“No one can begin to imagine what Nazanin has endured throughout the past tortuous six years; denied her freedoms, separated from her husband and young child, battling significant illness, thrown in solitary confinement,” Zappulla said in a statement. “An innocent victim of an international dispute, Nazanin has been one of many used as political pawns. Her treatment has been utterly inhumane.”

Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe can’t receive consular assistance from their home countries.

A UN panel has criticized what it describes as “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.

Ashoori was detained in Tehran in August 2017. He had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for alleged ties to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, something long denied by his supporters and family.

Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent, was caught in a dragnet targeting environmental activists while visiting Iran in January 2018. The 66-year-old served on the board of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Association, a prominent conservation group in Iran.

Iran convicted Tahbaz, along with seven other environmentalists including his colleagues, on charges of spying for the US. He was sentenced to 10 years and taken to Evin Prison.

The release comes as negotiators in Vienna say they have nearly finalized a roadmap for both the US and Iran to rejoin Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, sparking years of tensions across the wider Middle East as Tehran enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Those negotiations were disrupted last week by a Russian demand that Moscow not be affected by Western sanctions over its war on Ukraine. It remains unclear when they’ll resume in Vienna.

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