x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 November 2017

Dispute over arms deal cash threatens jailed Briton’s release from Iran jail: report

Family meets Britain’s foreign secretary for the first time over the 19-month detention of charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil for the British-Iranian mother, who was jailed in September 2016 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Iranian government.  Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil for the British-Iranian mother, who was jailed in September 2016 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Iranian government. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The husband of the charity worker jailed in Iran has urged the UK government to honour its legal obligations amid reports that an unpaid £400 million bill over an arms deal 38 years ago was a stumbling block to her release.

After decades of refusing to return a down payment, Britain was ordered by a trade court in 2009 to repay some £390m after an agreement to supply the regime of the shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with tanks and armoured vehicles was scrapped following the 1979 revolution.

Britain has yet to repay the money despite the lifting of the sanctions regime in 2016 and the issue has been cited by Iranian officials as an issue they want to be settled, according to reports.

That raised at a meeting Wednesday between Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the first between the pair since she was jailed in April 2016 for working with organisations seeking to topple the state, a charge disputed by her family.

“I think it’s important that the British government honours its legal obligations,” Mr Ratcliffe said after the meeting. “Iran was hoping there would be a new era of improved relations and trade and they have been frustrated at how long it has taken.”

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Iranian officials were also seeking more British businesses to invest in Iran and other financial issues to be resolved, according to a report in The Sun newspaper citing an unnamed minister, as well as the arms deal repayment.

“I understand that they [the UK government] have been looking into a way that will enable a payment to be made,” said Penny Madden QC, who has been working on the case for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employers.

Mr Johnson told Mr Ratcliffe that the issue had never been raised during his discussions over the case with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, according to Mr Ratcliffe's MP, Tulip Siddiq. Mr Johnson also denied that his department had been briefing on the issue.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a British-Iranian dual national - was detained at Tehran Airport following a family holiday. She was sentenced to five years in prison and accused in Iranian media of trying to overthrown the government.

The case has received greater prominence in the last two weeks after Mr Johnson suggested she was in Iran training journalists on behalf of her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the news organisation.

Mr Johnson faced calls to resign after his comments were seized on by the Iranian authorities. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken back to court and warned that she could face a longer sentence.

The threat also quashed any possibility of an early release from jail despite hopes that she would be back in Britain before the end of the year.

Mr Johnson apologised in parliament on Monday and agreed to meet Mr Ratcliffe. Mr Ratcliffe wants to accompany the foreign secretary to Iran during a diplomatic visit later this year and for the pair to see Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison.

He told reporters that the hour-long meeting had been “positive and constructive” and that the foreign secretary was keen to take him to Iran because his wife’s physical and mental health has worsened. Earlier this week, it was announced that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has undergone tests for breast cancer.

"She talks about being on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” Mr Ratcliffe said.

“I absolutely believe that's true. I think it's important I don't exaggerate anything in the media and I'm not melodramatic, but she is in a difficult place."

She is one of at least eight people with dual Iranian and foreign nationality held in prison in Iran as of last month, according to the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran. Mr Johnson said that “no stone would be left unturned in the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and that of our other dual nationals detained in Iran”.

Richard Dalton, the UK’s ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2006, said on Tuesday that the foreign secretary’s options are limited and he warned that resolution of the case was unlikely to be swift.