British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that two British-Iranian dual nationals are free from Iranian detention and “they will now return to the UK.”
Johnson’s tweeted the news as Iranian government-controlled media reported that Nazanon Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashuri were handed over to British officials earlier on Wednesday.
Images tweeted showed Zaghari-Ratcliffe boarding a plane and smiling inside the aircraft.
Later news emerged that a plane carrying the freed individuals landed in Oman. It is not clear how long they will stay there before flying back to the UK.
Another detainee, Morad Tahbaz, has also been freed from prison but not yet cleared to leave Iran. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted that "I can confirm Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will return to the UK today, and Morad Tahbaz has been released from prison on furlough. They will be reunited with their families later today."
"Both of them are on their way to the airport in Tehran to leave Iran," Reuters quoted their lawyer Hojjatr Kermani as saying. Iran's judiciary officials were not available to comment.
Iran's Fars new agency affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard announced that Zaghari-Ratcliffe is in the airport being handed over to a British team in exchange for a 400-million-pound debt the UK owes Iran.
Earlier, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had confirmed that a British negotiating team is in Tehran.
Reports on Tuesday indicated that Zaghari-Ratcliff had received her British passport back from Iranian authorities.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also said on Wednesday that Britain is looking at ways to pay a historic 400-million-pound ($522 million) debt to Iran, adding that she would not say if it had been settled already.
Iranian state media in 2021 cited unidentified Iranian officials as saying that the British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be freed once the debt had been paid.
"We have been clear this is a legitimate debt that we do owe Iran and we have been seeking ways to pay it," Truss said. She added that there was a British team in Iran but would not give any further details.
Iran's clerical rulers say Britain owes the money that Iran's Shah paid up front for 1,750 Chieftain tanks and other vehicles, almost none of which were eventually delivered after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 toppled the U.S.-backed leader.
The British and Iranian governments say there is no connection between the debt and the legal case.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 and later convicted by an Iranian court of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who served most of her first sentence in Tehran's Evin prison, was released in March 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic and kept under house arrest at her parents' home in Tehran. In March 2021, she was released from house arrest but she was summoned to court again on the new charge.
In April 2021, she was then sentenced to a new term in jail on charges of propaganda against Iran's ruling system, charges she denies. However, that sentence has not yet started and she is banned from leaving the country.
In the past 43 years, the Islamic Republic has taken hostage or detained many foreigners and dual national. Security agencies arrest occasional visitors or tourists on vague and trumped-up charges of espionage or anti-regime activities. Usually, the detained individuals are exchanged for money or release of certain Iranians imprisoned in the West for illegal activities.
International human rights organizations say that the practice amounts to hostage taking to gain leverage against other countries.
With reporting by Reuters