Talks between senior Iranian and UK officials over the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have ended without any progress towards her release from prison in Tehran, and her husband criticising the British government over the impasse.
Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, had met Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, in London for talks over the British Iranian charity worker, raising hopes that her incarceration of over five years may soon come to an end.
Mr Bagheri Kani’s visit was the first by a high-ranking Iranian official since the election of the conservative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s President and comes a few months after there was almost a breakthrough in the case.
It is widely accepted that the continuing detention of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is connected to $400 million the UK owes to Iran over a deal for 1,500 battle tanks in the mid 70s.
The vast majority of the Chieftains were not delivered after the Shah was overthrown and an Islamic Republic established in Iran.
The British government has lost a series of legal actions, including international arbitration in the Hague, over the money owed, but has yet to pay Iran and has refused to say why the payment has not been made.
Government officials have previously held that the paying the debt would breach European Union and US sanctions on Iran. But the UK is no longer a part of the European Union and Washington had stated that it would be the “sovereign decision” of the UK on what it does with the money.
Richard Ratcliffe, who is on the 19th day of a hunger strike over his wife’s detention said that a meeting he had with Mr Cleverley was “depressing... We asked about the debt and they wouldn’t talk about it.”
Mr Ratcliffe added that the minister had said to him “‘our position is well known’. And we said ‘well frankly, it is not well known, you haven’t told us. I don’t know if you have told anyone else, but we have never heard it.’”
Tulip Siddiq, the couples’ MP, who also met Mr Cleverly, said: “The debt was brought up and he said the two were not connected. He didn’t deny that we owed the money but refused to link the two.
“The people who captured Nazanin actually said to her ‘your imprisonment is due to your country’s failure to pay the debt’. It is absolutely ridiculous to try and deny the link but he did. The government will never give the reasons why we won’t pay it. We didn’t get the sense there was any plan or strategy.”
The talks between Mr Bagheri Kani and Mr Cleverly included the ongoing international talks over Iran’s nuclear programme as well as Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals being held in Iran.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that Mr Bagheri Kani was urged that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals being held in Iran should be freed.
It said in a statement: “The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Bagheri Kani visited the FCDO today (11 November) to meet senior government officials and Minister Cleverly. FCDO representatives reiterated that Iran should take the opportunity to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) deal on the table now.
“The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister was also pressed on the need for Iran to urgently release all British nationals unfairly detained in Iran, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.
“Minister Cleverly met Richard Ratcliffe again today to reaffirm our commitment to reuniting his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with her family in the UK.
“The Foreign Secretary, Minister Cleverly and the FCDO continue to work hard to secure the release of all those British nationals unfairly detained in Iran.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, had said that the payment should be made. “We are a country that pays its debts. There are practical issues with sanctions, but those are things that you can sometimes get around, if you, for example, gave £400m worth of medicines or something like that.”
He continued: “There are also political considerations, you know, the reactions of people like the United States, but given that President Obama did pay America’s debts to Iran in exactly the same situation, I think it’s unlikely that we would have the same objections from President Biden than we might have had from President Trump.”
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