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UK-Iran talks fail to agree release terms for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman imprisoned by Tehran since 2016, is set to remain in detention after negotiations between UK and Iranian officials failed to agree the terms of her release.

Ali Bagheri, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, met UK Foreign Office minister James Cleverly in talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal, as well as discussing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case.

It was the first time Bagheri has met with officials in London since the election of Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi five months ago, sparking expectations that progress might be made on securing the aid worker’s release.

Her husband Richard Ratcliffe, who is on day 19 of a hunger strike outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, described his meeting with Cleverly as “depressing”. He added he had been left “a little bit more deflated today than I was this time yesterday”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker, was jailed in Iran five and a half years ago on spying charges that she has always denied. She has been under house arrest in Tehran since March 2020. In April, she was sentenced to another year in jail after being convicted of “propaganda against the [Islamic Republic’s] establishment”. She has also been banned from leaving the country until 2023.

Ratcliffe believes his wife’s continued detention is linked to a historic £400m debt for the purchase of Chieftain tanks ordered by Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution but never delivered. The UK government refuses to say why the debt has not yet been paid.

Jeremy Hunt, former UK foreign secretary, on Thursday called for the debt to be settled. “We should pay it because it is an irritant to relations and whether or not it should be linked to Nazanin’s case, the Iranians certainly do make that linkage,” he told BBC Radio 4.

The couple’s local MP, Tulip Siddiq, said she had been left exasperated following a meeting with Cleverly on Thursday afternoon. “The debt was brought up and he said the two were not connected,” Siddiq said. “He didn’t deny that we owed money but refused to link the two.”

She added: “The people who captured Nazanin have actually said to her: ‘You’re imprisonment is due to your country’s failure to pay the debt.’ It is absolutely ridiculous to try and deny the link but he did.” The government “will never tell us the reasons why we won’t pay it. We didn’t get the sense there was any plan or strategy,” she said.

Ratcliffe added: “He [Cleverly] said ‘Our position is well known’, and we said ‘Well, look, frankly it’s not well known, you haven’t told us. I don’t know if you’ve told anyone else but we’ve never heard it’.”

The FCDO said: “Minister Cleverly met Richard Ratcliffe again today to reaffirm our commitment to reuniting his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with her family in the UK. The Foreign Secretary, Minister Cleverly and the FCDO continue to work hard to secure the release of all those British nationals unfairly detained in Iran.”

Government officials previously claimed paying the debt could breach EU or US sanctions on Iran. However, campaigners say the UK is no longer in the EU and the Americans have described the issue as a “sovereign decision” for the British government.

Ratcliffe believes the UK government has now tied the release of his wife to the fate of American prisoners held in Tehran, as well Iran’s return to negotiations over its nuclear programme.

He said on Thursday evening he would continue his hunger strike, but added: “I made a promise to Nazanin, I made a promise to my family, mum in particular, and to the family doctors, that I won’t take it too far.”

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