Efforts to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian jail may have met a new hurdle after Iranian media reported Tehran had withdrawn a prison-swap offer to western countries.
British-Iranian national, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first jailed in Tehran in 2016 on spying charges, which she has always denied.
On Tuesday, as the new Iranian hardline President Ibrahim Raisi was sworn in, the Iranian Nour news site reported that Tehran had shelved plans to release Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other Iranian-British prisoners, in a sign that British relations with Iran may be more difficult under Mr Raisi.
The website quoted an unidentified senior official as saying there was no “incentive” to go on with plans to swap four American prisoners with Iranian prisoners jailed in the US. It also claimed that the long-negotiated release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been put on hold.
The report claimed that talks between Iranian and British officials were underway over releasing Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and in exchange, Britain would pay £400 million owed for arms transfer the UK failed to make in 1979.
But the Iranian official said talks stalled as the UK wanted to also release Morad Tahbaz, the Iranian environmentalist, who holds both British and American citizenship.
The news on Iran’s shift in thinking on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe comes as an Iranian Revolutionary Court sentenced another British citizen, Mehran Raouf, to more than ten years in prison.
The court alleged, on Wednesday, that Mr Raouf, who carries Iranian citizenship too, and German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi participated in the management of an illegal group and propaganda activities against the regime, according to a tweet by their lawyer Mostafa Nili.
The negotiations on hostages were separate from the Vienna meetings on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration is trying to revive the agreement on the basis of a potential “mutual return” to compliance with its terms after Trump had withdrawn the US from it in 2018.
But Iran accused the US and Britain of trying to link the two diplomatic tracks and accused them of keeping the prisoner swap “hostage” to extract concessions from Iran regarding the nuclear deal.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi said in a tweet last month tweeted “TEN PRISONERS on all sides may be released TOMORROW if US&UK fulfil their part of deal.”
The sixth round of nuclear talks ended last month without agreement. The US has repeatedly said it is ready for a seventh-round as soon as Iran is ready while also calling for the immediate release of American citizens detained in Iran.
State Department spokesman Ned Price rejected the claim Mr Araghchi’s claims and denied there was already an agreement on a swap.
“Iran’s continued arbitrary detention of our dual nationals is unacceptable. We urge the Iranian authorities to release the detainees without any further delay,” a UK government spokesperson told The Telegraph.
The US appear to be adamant that American and British prisoners should be released all at once in an attempt to prevent Iran from repeatedly stepping up its demands, in return for their freedom.
Western countries have accused Iran of trying to score political concessions by arresting dozens of foreigners and dual nationals on charges that critics condemn as fake.
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on many occasions, has refused any British representations on behalf of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and said her case is a matter for the Iranian Judiciary to decide.
Mr Raisi, who is accused of serious human rights violations when he was a judge, is due to be inaugurated in a ceremony on Thursday after his election victory against moderate Hassan Rouhani in June. Iran observers say he will create even more barriers in the relations with the West.
“We will seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America,” Mr Raisi said on Tuesday, “But we will not tie the ... economy to the will of foreigners,” he added.
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