LONDON — After spending years locked up, British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will return to the U.K. later today.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced Wednesday that the two will fly to Britain later, and that businessman Morad Tahbaz, who is a citizen of the U.S., U.K. and Iran, had been “released from prison on furlough.”
“Their release is the result of years of hard work and dedication by our brilliant diplomats, and intensive efforts over the past six months,” Truss said in a statement.
The British minister confirmed the U.K. has settled a debt of nearly £400 million owed to Tehran since the 1970s, which relates to a canceled order of 1,500 Chieftain tanks. The U.K. had committed to paying the debt but spent years litigating the amount and looking for ways to overcome the sanctions imposed against the Iranian regime.
Truss said the debt has been “settled in full compliance” with U.K. and international sanctions and “all legal obligations,” and that “these funds will be ring-fenced solely for the purchase of humanitarian goods.”
Their release comes after intense talks between the Iranian government and a British negotiating team in Tehran, and will feel like a victory for Truss after seven months in the role which has been overshadowed by a difficult meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
The U.K. was very close to resolving the dispute with Tehran last summer. Truss has been credited with making this a priority since she arrived at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September. Negotiations continued during October and November, and in December she met the Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi to request Oman’s diplomatic assistance.
Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, who worked on the case under three prime ministers and five foreign secretaries, told Times Radio it was Truss who “actually did something.”
“We had such a difficult time with the other foreign secretaries speaking to them trying to convince them about this debt,” she said, adding: “It wasn’t a dispute about whether we owe the money” but “more about them not wanting to link the fact that we owe the money and the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, even though Nazanin was actually told by the Revolutionary Guards over and over again, when she was in prison, that the reason she was being held is that because of our failure to pay the debt.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 during a trip to Iran with her daughter Gabriella and jailed for five years on charges of plotting against the regime. She was later sentenced to an additional year of confinement on charges of spreading propaganda.
Ashoori, a retired civil engineer, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2019 on charges of spying for Israel’s Mossad and two years for “acquiring illegitimate wealth,” according to Iran’s judiciary.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Ashoori and Thomson Reuters Foundation denied the charges.
Amnesty International’s Chief Executive Sacha Deshmukh said the U.K. government needs to now focus on the release of British-Iranian labor rights activist Mehran Raoof.
“It’s been clear for years that the Iranian authorities are targeting foreign nationals with spurious national security-related charges to exert diplomatic pressure, and it’s more important than ever that Britain works multilaterally to combat this insidious practice,” he said.
This article has been updated