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Iran close to releasing two British citizens imprisoned for years

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have been detained in Iran since 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Image: Husband Of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Starts Second Hunger Strike
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian national, was arrested in Iran in 2016 and served a five-year prison sentence on spying charges.Hollie Adams / Getty Images

Two British citizens imprisoned in Iran for several years could be on their way to the U.K. soon, possibly within hours, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the discussions between London and Tehran.

Aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, who had been imprisoned in Iran since April 2016, has been given her passport and is at her family home in Tehran, Tulip Siddiq, a member of the British Parliament, said earlier in a tweet. A British government negotiating delegation is in Iran, Siddiq said.

Talks are underway for the releases of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, a retired engineer in his 60s who has been imprisoned since 2017. They could be released within hours, the two sources said.

A Western diplomat said, “It’s moving in the right direction.”

Iran has been accused of detaining the British nationals to force the U.K. to settle a dispute dating to the 1970s. Iran says Britain owes it about $524 million because of a canceled order for British tanks. Britain has said it is willing to pay the debt.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori are dual U.K.-Iranian citizens who have been imprisoned on what the British government maintains were trumped-up charges while visiting family in Iran. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years, accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. She was then sentenced to additional time last year on a charge of promoting “propaganda against the system” for having participated in a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.

Ashoori was sentenced to 10 years in prison, accused of spying for Israel, a charge his family called “bogus.”

A representative for the Iranian mission to the United Nations said last year that the Iranian government “categorically rejects” allegations that the pair and others being detained by the government were “hostages.”

Several U.S. citizens are also being detained. Their fates are believed to be tied to the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump backed out of in 2018. If world powers and Iran can agree on restoring the deal, the U.S. would most likely unblock frozen funds in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere, opening the door to the release of the detained Americans.

The imprisoned Americans are Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American consultant imprisoned since October 2015; his elderly father, Baquer Namazi; Emad Shargi, an Iranian American businessman; and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian American environmental activist who also holds British citizenship.

Human rights groups say the British, U.S. and other Western nationals imprisoned in Iran are being held on baseless charges and that Tehran uses detained foreigners as bargaining chips and to extract ransom payments. Iran denies the charges.

Hostage Aid Worldwide, a nonprofit group founded by former hostages and family members of hostages held abroad, said it was encouraged by the news of “ongoing progress of the U.K. hostage negotiations with Iran.” It called on the Biden administration “to act on its promise and pursue the immediate release of the American hostages held in Iran.”