Iran releases UK citizens after five years in custody

By Griffin Brammer, Digital communications manager

Iran has released two British citizens from a Tehran jail after over five years in custody.

Charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and retired civil engineer Anoosheh Ashoori were accused of plotting a coup against the Iranian government and espionage, respectively.

“(We’re) looking forward to a new life,” Zaghari-Radcliffe’s husband stated. “You can’t get back the time that’s gone. That’s a fact. But we live in the future.”

The release comes amid negotiations to release several Iranian dual-national prisoners in Iran from countries such as the U.S. and Britain. Iran does not recognize the dual-citizenship of these prisoners.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss brokered the deal with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi.

“I was able to reset the relationship,” she said. “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.”

Among the issues resolved was a $433 million debt the U.K. owes to Iran. The debt first amassed in 1970, when the U.K. ministry of defense failed to deliver 1,500 tanks to the Shah of Iran.

“I think they are trying to use this as leverage to settle the historic debt for the Chieftain tanks, and that’s what they want settled,” former U.K. foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said in 2021.

Truss confirmed that the payment of $519 million was made in congruence with anti-laundering and counterterrorism sanctions. She also added that the details of the reimbursement were to remain confidential; however, Britain only allowed the government in Tehran to use the money for humanitarian reasons. 

Despite the British government’s denial of any relationship between the debt and Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori’s release, both Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Iranian government stated that the debt is directly correlated to the pair’s imprisonment.

“Nazanin is being held in prison as a bargaining chip. But to express it so bluntly is shocking to us,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband stated after a failed temporary leave hearing for his wife in 2018.

This deal also saw the release of Morad Tahbaz, an American, British and Iranian conservationist and third detainee. Tahbaz was released on furlough, meaning that he will still have to remain in Iran.

Tahbaz is being charged for spying as an American citizen, though he was born in England. 

“The British (government) now just says he is an American problem,” the Tahbaz family said.

Truss noted in a tweet that negotiations were being made for Tahbaz’s return. 

“We will continue to work intensively to secure his departure from Iran,” she wrote.

Tulip Siddiq, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s member of parliament, also weighed in on her release.

“She was contacted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran over the weekend and asked to come in for questioning and quite apprehensive – she messaged me before she went. To her utter surprise, at the end of the questioning, and there were some scare tactics in there, she was given her British passport back,” Siddiq said.

“I had an idea that she would be coming back, but it’s always touch and go with these things — we’ve had so many false dawns, I didn’t know for sure.”