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UK calls on Iran to 'unconditionally' release Zaghari-Ratcliffe

UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab says reports of British aid worker's imminent release are 'not yet accurate'
UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raaab (R) and US Secretary of State Tony Blinken
UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hold a press conference in London, 3 May (Reuters)

UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab on Monday called for the unconditional release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen detained in Iran, denying reports of an imminent deal with Tehran that would free her along with other foreign nationals.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, Raab said British authorities were working "very intensively" to secure the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been in Iranian custody since 2016.

"It's incumbent on Iran unconditionally to release those who have [been] held arbitrarily and - in our view - unlawfully," Raab said.

On Sunday, Iranian state media cited unidentified officials saying Tehran was nearing an agreement with Washington to release four Americans in exchange for freeing four Iranians jailed by the US over violating sanctions. 

The purported deal, first reported by the Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese news outlet Al-Mayadeen, could also unblock Iranian assets frozen by US sanctions, the anonymous officials said.

Iranian state TV has also suggested Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be freed as part of a deal with London that would see the UK pay Tehran a decades-old debt of £400m ($556 million), stemming from an arms deal that was cancelled after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.

"The reports, I'm afraid, are not yet accurate in terms of the suggestion of her imminent release," Raab said on Monday.

Blinken also dismissed Iranian media accounts, saying "reports coming out of Tehran are not accurate".

"I have no higher priority than bringing arbitrarily detained Americans, American hostages, home to the United States," Blinken said.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian aid worker, was sentenced to five years in jail in 2016 over charges of plotting against the Iranian government. In March, after serving her initial sentence, she was sentenced to another year in jail and a subsequent year-long travel ban.

Richard Ratcliffe, the detained aid worker's husband, has said repeatedly that his wife's case is based on bogus charges and she is being used as a bargaining chip in the debt dispute between Tehran and London.

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On Sunday, Raab said Iran's treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe amounted to torture.

"Nazanin is held unlawfully in my view, as a matter of international law. I think she's being treated in the most abusive, tortuous way," he said.

"I think it amounts to torture the way she's being treated, and there is a very clear, unequivocal obligation on the Iranians to release her."

The UK government acknowledges the debt to Tehran, and British officials have said recently that they were working to settle it.

"We recognise the IMS [International Military Services] debt should be repaid and we're looking at arrangements for securing that," Raab told Times Radio over the weekend.

Reports of the prisoner swap came after a second round of talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna, aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

The multilateral pact saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy, but Washington nixed the agreement in 2018 under former President Donald Trump.

The UK, France, Germany, Russia and China are negotiating directly with Iran as part of the Joint Commission of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Washington, which is officially outside the accord, is involved indirectly in the talks through European intermediaries.