UK tells Iran sanctions preventing payment of £400m debt

Britain paying the money is seen as precondition for release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being detained in Tehran

The UK has told Iran it cannot pay an acknowledged £400m debt to Tehran because of restrictions on bank transactions caused by international sanctions, Iran’s deputy foreign minister has said.

The debt has come to be viewed as a precondition for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other UK-Iranian dual nationals detained in Tehran. On Thursday Richard Ratcliffe was on the 19th day of a hunger strike outside the Foreign Office, urging it to pay the debt in order to secure the release of his wife.

Ratcliffe said he felt deflated and stuck after a meeting with the Middle East minister, James Cleverly, to discuss the possible return of his wife to the UK. He said: “It felt like, you know, perfectly nice, sincere, caring, everyone in the room was caring. But you know we’re still stuck in the same status quo. We’re still stuck in the same problems that led us to end up on hunger strike.”

Ratcliffe’s meeting followed talks between UK government officials and Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, as part of preparations for the resumption of talks in Vienna at the end of this month on the terms for the US return to the nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. The talks have been deferred since June after the Iranian presidential elections.

In a statement, the Foreign Office said Bagheri Kani “was pressed on the need for Iran to urgently release all British nationals unfairly detained in Iran, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz”.

After the meeting, Bagheri Kani said the size of the payment to Iran, including interest, had been agreed by the two sides, revealing it was less than £500m.

He said: “Now what the UK government are bringing up is the limitations on banking interactions, saying it is a difficulty, and finally they cannot do it.”

He also confirmed the two sides had been very close to agreeing terms for paying the UK debt in the summer. He said: “The UK government did not implement its commitments and you will have to ask them for the reason. You have to ask the UK authorities why they will not pay the debt.”

The British Foreign Office has been reluctant to discuss why a debt that it acknowledges cannot be paid, or whether a mechanism immune from sanctions could be found.

Asked whether repaying the debt would ease the bilateral relationship, the deputy foreign minister said: “If these incidents were resolved, it would naturally have to influence the relationship between the two countries.” But he stressed the issue was separate from the detention of British Iranian dual nationals.

Asked if he had a message for Ratcliffe during his hunger strike, he said: “We have Iranians that are in prison in the UK for more than 20 years. One man’s health is in danger and he is very weak. We work day by day with other countries for the swap of prisoners. This is not very unusual.”

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Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

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