LONDON: Two British-Iranians flew home on Wednesday after being released from years of detention in Iran, as the UK government confirmed it had paid a longstanding debt over a cancelled defence contract.

“Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will return from Iran today,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said. “They will be reunited with their families and loved ones.”

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

“It’s been six long years — and I can’t believe I can FINALLY share this photo,” she wrote.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe said 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”.

Truss also announced that Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American who also holds British nationality, has been released from prison “on furlough” to his Tehran home.

Addressing parliament later on Wedn­esday, Truss said: “The agonies endured by Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and their families must never happen again.”

Complex talks

The pair were released as major powers in Vienna close in on renewing the landmark 2015 Joint Com­prehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on regulating Iran’s nuclear programme.

The deal gives Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme and Tehran said on Wednesday that “two issues” remain with the US to restore the deal.

Truss confirmed that, with diplomatic assistance from Oman, London and Tehran had “in parallel” resolved a $515 million debt dating back to the 1970s and the era of the Shah of Iran.

The debt payment deal was reached “after highly complex and exhaustive negotiations”, Truss said, and the money can only be used for humanitarian goods.

The families of both Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori believe they were being held as political prisoners until the issue was settled.

The UK has consciously avoided saying the detention of the pair, and others held in Iran, was linked to the debt for an order of tanks that was cancelled after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Wednesday that Iran had received the money “a few days ago”, adding that it was “wrong to link Iran receiving its debt... to the release of these people”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the news and data agency, was arrested in Tehran on a visit to family in 2016. She was sentenced to imprisonment for plotting to overthrow the government.

Ashoori, a retired engineer from southeast London, was arrested in 2017 and jailed for 10 years on charges of spying for Israel. The pair landed in Muscat on a Royal Air Force of Oman flight, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2022

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