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Zaghari-Ratcliffe handed over to British officials, Iranian news agency says

Iran has handed over UK-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to British officials, an Iranian state news agency said, in a move that could boost western diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested on spying charges in 2016, would be released in a prisoner exchange with an unidentified Iranian held in the UK, the Fars news agency said.

It claimed that Britain had also paid $530mn of historical debt owed to the republic for the purchase of Chieftain tanks that Tehran ordered before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Neither Iranian or British officials commented on the reports.

Iran’s state television also said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was handed over to British officials.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Zabihollah Khodaeian, confirmed to Fars that Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, another Iranian-British national, were released. He, however, gave no further details.

It was not clear when Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker who always denied the charges, and Ashoori would be able to leave the Islamic republic.

Ashoori, 67, was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in jail on espionage charges which included “co-operating with a hostile state against the Islamic Republic” and “obtaining illicit funds” amounting to €33,000. Iran’s judiciary later said the hostile state was Israel and that Ashoori allegedly gave information on Iran to Mossad.

Tulip Siddiq, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s MP, said the dual national remained “under the authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard”. 

She told Sky News: “I’ve spoken to Richard Ratcliffe [Nazanin’s husband] who said that Nazanin is now at the airport in Tehran, but made the point that she is very much still under the authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and that there has been no information about a deal.”

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, told the BBC on Wednesday that the government was “looking for ways to pay” the outstanding debt.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier that talks to secure the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe were “moving forward”, adding that negotiations were “going right up to the wire”.

Ratcliffe had long believed that his wife’s continued detention was linked to a number of issues, including the outstanding debt related to the tanks that were not delivered after the last shah was ousted in the revolution.

The release of the dual national comes as western powers are hoping to secure a deal with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers.

While Tehran and London have always insisted the two issues were separate, her release would remove a longstanding point of contention between the UK and the Islamic republic.

Negotiators at nuclear talks in Vienna have for weeks been saying they were closing in on a deal that would lead to the US rejoining the accord abandoned by former US president Donald Trump four years ago. The Biden administration would then provide sanctions relief to Iran, in return for it reversing its nuclear activity to agreed limits.

The UK is a signatory to the 2015 accord, alongside France, Germany, Russia and China, and heavily involved in EU-brokered talks in Vienna to save the agreement.

US officials have previously said that the release of US-Iranians held in the republic would also be key to any deal to revive the 2015 nuclear accord.

The Vienna talks stalled last week after Moscow demanded it would need guarantees from the US that sanctions imposed on Russia after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine would not impede its trade with Iran.

The move forced EU mediators to pause the indirect talks between the US and Iran in Vienna just as negotiators hoped to push them over the finish line. But on Tuesday, Moscow suggested it would not scupper the process, saying Washington had provided the assurances it was seeking and that the final details of an agreement to revive the deal were being “polished”. 

After Iran signed the accord in 2015, it transferred enriched uranium to Russia to reduce its stockpile, and it would have to take similar action if an agreement was reached with the Biden administration.

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