Iran foreign minister offers prisoner swap deal for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Josie Ensor
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe posing for a photograph with her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella  - AFP

Iran’s foreign minister has offered a prisoner exchange of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and an Iranian woman held in Australia on “phony charges”.

Mohammed Javad Zarif, speaking at an event held by the Asia Society in New York on Wednesday, said the proposal was made to the US six months ago but he was now making it public.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, a British-Iranian who has been held in prison in Tehran on spying charges since 2016, was last month granted diplomatic protection by the UK government in an attempt to secure her release, with little effect.

“We have an Iranian lady in Australia who gave birth in prison after she was arrested on an extradition request from the United States because she was responsible as a translator in the purchase of transmission equipment for (an) Iranian broadcasting company,” Mr Zarif said.

While he did not name the woman, it is believed he was referring to Negar Ghodskani, who has been detained in Australia since 2017 on a charge of “conspiracy to export US-origin technology to Iran without the required licenses.”

Video of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's arrest shown on Iranian state TV

“She’s been lingering in an Australian jail for two years. We hear about Nazanin and her child. I feel sorry for them and I’ve done my best to help, but nobody talks about this lady in Australia whose child is growing up apart from its mother.”

Mr Zarif said he “had the authority” to negotiate such a deal, adding that it should also include other Iranian nationals held on sanctions violation charges in the US: “I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them.

“We believe that their charges are phony. The United States believes charges against those in prison in Iran are phony.”

He claimed he has not received an answer from the US administration after floating the idea six months ago.

The comments mark the first public suggestion from the Iranian government that it would be willing to use Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was working at the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the time of her arrest, as diplomatic leverage.

The issue of the mother-of-one’s citizenship has created an impasse between the two countries as Iran does not recognise dual nationality.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from Hampstead, north London, has complained of being denied access to medical care at Evin prison, going on a hunger strike earlier this year in protest.

Her husband, Richard, said he was surprised by Mr Zarif's offer and that the UK government gave her protection precisely to protect her from being used as leverage.

Mr Zarif, seen as a moderate inside the conservative Islamic Republic, also discussed Washington’s announcement on Monday that it would sanction all countries that buy Iranian oil, in a move meant to squeeze Iran's main source of revenue.

Oil prices have hit their highest level since November, with the decision further tightening global supply.

“(President Donald) Trump thinks he can bring us to our knees, but he is mistaken,” Mr Zarif warned.

"We believe that Iran will continue to sell its oil. We will continue to find buyers for our oil and we will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil," he told the event in New York.

"If the United States takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that then it should be prepared for the consequences."

He ended by saying that "it's not a crisis yet, but it's a dangerous situation.

"Accidents, plotted accidents are possible."