Iran Releases British Prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Amid Hopes of Breakthrough in Nuclear Talks

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British national who was imprisoned in Iran in 2016, left the country on Wednesday, according to Iranian state media and the British government, as Tehran moves closer to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr. Ashouri had been released.

“I am very pleased to confirm that the unfair detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran has ended today, and they will now return to the U.K.,” Mr. Johnson wrote on Twitter.

Tulip Siddiq, a lawmaker representing Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s home constituency in London, tweeted a photo of her on the plane as it took off from Tehran. A third British national, Morad Tahbaz, who also holds American citizenship, remained in Iran but had been released on furlough as the U.K. government worked to secure his departure from Iran, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison, charged with seeking to topple the Islamic Republic and prevented from leaving the country since then. Mr. Ashouri was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2019 on charges including espionage for Israel. Both denied the charges. The evidence against them was never made public.

Ms. Truss said that the U.K., “in parallel” with the release of the two prisoners, had repaid a debt of 400 million pounds, equivalent to $521.6 million, for an arms sale canceled after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She said the funds had been “ring-fenced solely for the purchase of humanitarian goods.”

The prisoner issue isn’t formally a part of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, but the release in 2016 of four U.S. prisoners in Iran was secured through similar talks that happened in parallel to the nuclear talks. White House envoy for Iran

Robert Malley

has said a nuclear deal is unlikely as long as Iran holds U.S. “hostages.”

Iranian officials have said the country wants the U.S. to release Iranian detainees in return for freeing the American prisoners.

A vigil for Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe held outside the Embassy of Iran in London yesterday.


Kirsty O’Connor/Zuma Press

Former President

Donald Trump

withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal in 2018. The Biden administration has made rejoining it a top foreign-policy priority, hoping it can lead to discussions over Iran’s other activities, such as its conventional missile program and support for militias in the Middle East fighting America’s regional partners.

After nearly a year of negotiations in Vienna, which were complicated by an Iranian refusal to meet the American delegation face to face, Iran, the U.S. and the five other parties to the nuclear deal are getting close to an agreement to restore the nuclear pact, according to officials involved in the talks.

Earlier this month, Russia—which is also party to the deal—upended the process by demanding written guarantees from the U.S. that sanctions levied against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine wouldn’t hamper it from trading broadly with Iran under a revived nuclear deal. The U.S. and Europeans ruled out doing that, warning that if Russia didn’t back down, they would seek alternative options for concluding an agreement with Iran bypassing Moscow.

On Tuesday, after Russia’s Foreign Minister

Sergei Lavrov

met in Moscow with his Iranian counterpart, both Mr. Lavrov and

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

said Russia wasn’t standing in the way of the accord. This clears the way for Tehran and Washington to revive the 2015 agreement, senior Western diplomats said.

Given the length of her detention, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, was one of the best-known foreign prisoners in Iran. A British-Iranian dual national who was born in Tehran and moved to Britain in 2007 to study, she was detained in April 2016 during a visit to Tehran to see family.

While Iran says it isn’t trying to build nuclear weapons, a look at its key facilities suggests it could develop the technology to make them. WSJ breaks down Tehran’s capabilities as it hits new milestones in uranium enrichment and limits access to inspectors. Photo illustration: George Downs (Video from 3/5/21)

Later that year, she was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly seeking to topple the Islamic Republic. Tehran’s prosecutor-general said she had worked to recruit people to spread propaganda against Iran through a British Broadcasting Corp. Persian online journalism course she ran. She denied the charges.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe previously worked in an administrative role, not as a journalist, for BBC Media Action, a charity. She later worked as a project manager for the

Thomson Reuters

Foundation, the London-based charity arm of the news conglomerate Thomson Reuters, which has said her job didn’t involve training journalists.

After serving her sentence, some of which she spent outside prison on parole wearing an electronic tag, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced last year to another year in prison for alleged propaganda activities, which her lawyer said was based on her supposedly attending a protest in London 12 years earlier and giving an interview to the BBC.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe received her passport from Iranian authorities on Tuesday and was allowed to drive to Tehran airport on Wednesday, according to Ms. Siddiq.

Mr. Ashouri, a British-Iranian national in his late 60s, was detained in 2017 during a trip to Tehran to visit his mother. In 2019, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for allegedly spying for Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad and for “acquiring illegitimate wealth.” Mr. Ashouri denied both charges.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at

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