UK paid ‘blood money’ to secure release of Iran detainees

Britain has been accused by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo of paying “blood money” to bring home two UK-Iranian dual nationals from Tehran, claiming the move smacked of appeasement.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was back in Britain on Thursday after being detained by Tehran almost six years ago. Anoosheh Ashoori, another dual national, returned with her. Both have been reunited with their families.

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, has paid tribute to Oman, which shares close ties with both western powers and the Islamic republic, for its “incredibly helpful” role in mediating the release of the Britons.

But Pompeo claimed the payment by the UK of $530mn of debt owed to Iran, relating to a cancelled tank order in 1979, had rewarded “hostage takers”.

“That cash will terrorise Israel, UK and US,” he tweeted. The former secretary of state in the Trump administration added: “Appeasement feels good until it fails — it always does.”

Downing Street said Britain had long recognised that the debt was legitimate and would have to be repaid. Tehran paid for a consignment of Chieftain tanks, which was cancelled after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the payment had been “ringfenced” for humanitarian purposes and had been made in “parallel” with the releases.

But Number 10 insisted that the payment was “not contingent” on the freeing of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori. “The UK has never accepted our nationals being used for any political purpose,” it said.

However, many believe that the two issues are intrinsically linked. Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, called it a “ransom payment”.

He referred to the US payment of $400mn to the Iranian government in 2016, when then-president Barack Obama ordered pallets of cash to be sent to Iran to secure the release of four Americans, but six months later six more American dual nationals were detained.

Truss is said by British officials to have discussed the payment during her trip to Washington last week, suggesting that she had “squared off” the US on the basis it was a purely bilateral UK-Iran issue.

Downing Street declined to say whether Washington approved the payment.

To circumvent US sanctions on Iran, the British payment was identified as being exclusively for humanitarian purposes, although officials close to the deal said it was not used to buy vaccines, contrary to some reports.

Downing Street said a “rigorous oversight” system was in place to ensure the money was used for humanitarian purposes, but refused to say what the process was, or who was involved in it. Both sides have agreed to keep the details “confidential”.

The UK debt is expected to be deposited into banks that will disperse funds to Iran for humanitarian purposes, UK officials indicated. A bank in Oman is one of the routes agreed by the US, a western official added.

Along with the payment for the cancelled tank order, the release of the two British nationals also coincided with renewed western diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.

British diplomats have said this combination of factors helped to end the stand-off with Iran, which has caused deep frustration for Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May.

Johnson’s spokesperson denied that Truss had reneged on an understanding in Washington last week that Morad Tahbaz, a third detainee who has UK, US and Iranian nationality, would be included in the deal.

Truss, who has won cross-party praise in the UK for her handling of the complex negotiations, said Britain would continue to work with the US to secure the return of Tahbaz, who has been freed from prison on furlough.

Ned Price, US state department spokesperson, said on Wednesday: “We continue to work night and day to secure the release of our wrongfully detained citizens, and that includes US-UK citizen Morad Tahbaz.”

Downing Street said that a “small number” of UK nationals were still detained in Tehran but declined to say how many.

The Financial Times understands that there are at least 18 dual foreign nationals detained in the country: three Australians, one Canadian, two French, two German, two Swedish, five Americans and three American-British-Iranians. Also detained are one French national and an Iranian with permanent US residency.

They are business people, scientists, academics, human rights campaigners and other activists. The charges the Iranian government has made public include “spying for foreign intelligence services”, “propaganda against the political system of the Islamic Republic” and “collusion to endanger national security”.

In addition, two of those detained are considered forcibly disappeared by human rights organisations, as they have little or no contact with their families.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accused in 2016 of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, while Ashoori, a retired civil engineer, was detained in 2017 on spying charges. Both have vehemently denied the allegations.

Richard Ratcliffe, who waged a high-profile campaign to secure his wife’s release, said before her return that he looked forward to the “beginning of a new life” for the family.

Source: Financial Times