UK urges Iranian deputy FM on jailed British nationals

The British government says it urged Iran to release its detained citizens on Thursday, but the husband of British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says his own meeting with the Foreign Office gave him “no hope.”  

British officials on Thursday met in London with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani to discuss the landmark nuclear deal ahead of a seventh round of talks in Vienna that are scheduled for Nov. 29. 

A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign Office said in a statement following the meeting that Bagheri Kani “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.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 on her way home to the United Kingdom from a family vacation. After being held in solitary confinement for more than eight months, she was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly plotting to topple the government following a trial rights groups say was a sham. 

The dual national, who worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, denies the charges and says she traveled to Iran with her 22-month-old daughter to visit her family who lives there. 

She was released on house arrest as the coronavirus began spreading through Iran’s prisons in 2020. But following the completion of her five-year sentence, an Iranian court in April sentenced Zaghari-Ratcliffe to another year in jail for “spreading propaganda,” an accusation linked to her participation in a 2009 demonstration outside Iran’s embassy in London, as well as an interview she gave to BBC Persian.

Nearly three weeks ago, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, launched a hunger strike outside the Foreign Office headquarters in London in an effort to bring attention to his wife’s case. Ratcliffe, who has been sleeping in a tent near the building’s main entrance, met Thursday with the Foreign Office’s Middle East Minister James Cleverly.

“I came away with no hope,” Ratcliffe told reporters on the 19th day of his hunger strike. “If I’m honest, it was quite a depressing meeting. In terms of what we got told, well, not much.” 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family says she was told by Iranian authorities that her detention is tied to a decades-old debt owed to Iran by the United Kingdom over Chieftain tanks that were paid upfront by the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When he was overthrown in 1979, the sale was canceled but the money was not returned.

“We asked about the debt and they wouldn’t talk about it, I mean really clammed up. [Cleverly] said ‘our position is well known,’ and we said ‘well, look, frankly it’s not well known,” said Ratcliffe. 

In addition to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iran is also holding retired British-Iranian engineer Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who holds British, American and Iranian citizenship. 

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