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Iran lets Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Ashoori leave for UK after deal

FILE - Undated family handout file photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. British lawmaker, Tulip Siddiq, said Wednesday March 16, 2022 that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran for nearly six years, is on her way to Tehran’s airport to leave the country. (Zaghari-Ratcliffe Family via AP)

LONDON (AP) — A plane carrying Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British charity worker detained in Iran for almost six years, flew out of Tehran and headed for home Wednesday, soon after the U.K. government settled a decades-old debt to Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British-Iranian dual national, Anoush Ashoori, who was detained in Tehran in 2017, boarded a plane from Mehrabad International Airport after the deal was struck. A third dual national, Morad Tahbaz, is set to be released from prison on furlough shortly.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, tweeted that he was pleased the two’s “unfair detention” had ended.

“The UK has worked intensively to secure their release and I am delighted they will be reunited with their families and loved ones,” he wrote.

The breakthrough came after extensive diplomacy that secured the release of the three dual nationals and led to agreement to repay the debt in a way that complies with U.K. and international sanctions. Britain agreed to pay Iran 393.8 million pounds ($515.5 million), which will be ring-fenced so the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes. The British government declined to offer details of the arrangement.

While London has refused to acknowledge a link between the debt and the detention of the dual nationals, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has been outspoken in arguing that Iran was holding her hostage to force Britain to pay.

The debt has been a sticking point in British-Iranian relations for more than 40 years.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the U.K. canceled an agreement with the late Shah of Iran to sell the country more than 1,500 Chieftain tanks. Since the shah’s government had paid in advance, the new Iranian government demanded repayment for the tanks that were never delivered. The two countries have haggled over the debt ever since.

Hope for a deal had been growing since Tuesday, when the member of Parliament who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s hometown announced that Iranian authorities had returned her passport.

Responding to questions about the talks before the deal was announced, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the U.K. believed the debt was legitimate and the government had been looking for ways to pay it that would comply with international sanctions.

When asked whether Britain would consider paying with goods such as medical equipment, Truss told Sky News she couldn’t comment.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken into custody at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family in Iran. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, but she was on vacation at the time of her arrest.

The 43-year-old mother was sentenced to five years in prison after she was convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. She had been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran for the last two years.

Johnson, as foreign minister in 2017, complicated efforts to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe by saying incorrectly that she was training journalists when she was arrested. He later apologized, though Iranian media repeatedly pointed to his remarks.

Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said his organization was “overjoyed” that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been freed.

“No one can begin to imagine what Nazanin has endured throughout the past tortuous six years; denied her freedoms, separated from her husband and young child, battling significant illness, thrown in solitary confinement,” Zappulla said in a statement. “An innocent victim of an international dispute, Nazanin has been one of many used as political pawns. Her treatment has been utterly inhumane.”

Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe can’t receive consular assistance from their home countries.

A U.N. panel has criticized what it describes as “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.

Ashoori was detained in Tehran in August 2017. He had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for alleged ties to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, something long denied by his supporters and family.

Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent, was caught in a dragnet targeting environmental activists while visiting Iran in January 2018. The 66-year-old served on the board of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Association, a prominent conservation group in Iran.

Iran convicted Tahbaz, along with seven other environmentalists including his colleagues, on charges of spying for the U.S. He was sentenced to 10 years and taken to Evin Prison.

The release comes as negotiators in Vienna say they have nearly finalized a roadmap for both the U.S. and Iran to rejoin Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, sparking years of tensions across the wider Mideast as the Islamic Republic enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Those negotiations found themselves disrupted last week by a Russian demand that Moscow not be affected by Western sanctions over its war on Ukraine. It remains unclear when they’ll resume in Vienna.

Associated Press reporters Amir Vahdat in Tehran; Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report; Gambrell reported from Dubai.