Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband hopeful after Iran says open to more prisoner swaps

Campbell MacDiarmid
·2-min read
Richard Ratcliffe says Western governments must challenge Iran for its 'hostage diplomacy' - Alastair Grant /AP
Richard Ratcliffe says Western governments must challenge Iran for its 'hostage diplomacy' - Alastair Grant /AP

Tehran is open to further prisoner swaps, Iran's foreign minister said Thursday, raising hopes for a deal to free British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said Tehran was looking to make further exchanges following last week’s release of British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was freed apparently in return for three Iranians jailed abroad.

"We can always engage in that, it is in the interests of everybody," Mr Zarif said during a video-linked appearance at an Italian diplomatic conference.

“There are several proposals by Iran on the table,” he said. “I have suggested a global exchange of Iranian prisoners.”

There are Iranian prisoners held “illegally” in Europe, the United States and Africa, he said.

“All of them can go back to their families. Iran is ready to reciprocate. We can do it tomorrow, we can even do it today,” he said.

Richard Ratcliffe said the comments made him hopeful for a deal to free his wife, who has been detained in Iran since 2016, but added that states must challenge Tehran’s policy of state hostage-taking.

“I do think [Mr Zarif] makes clear again that we are all being held hostage until a deal is made,” Mr Ratcliffe said.

While Britain is not thought to be holding prisoners of importance to Iran, the case of Ms Moore-Gilbert suggests the Islamic Republic is open to broader agreements.

Australia is believed to have obtained the freedom of Melbourne University Middle East specialist by negotiating with Thailand for it to free two Iranians who had been jailed for terrorism.

“My instinct is that [Mr Zarif] is suggesting a series of parallel bilateral deals rather than one grand bargain,” said Mr Ratcliffe.

But Iranian officials have also given signals that the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, has been linked to repayment of a long-standing £400 million debt that London owes Tehran.

The UK has acknowledged it owes the debt – which arose over non-delivery of 1,500 Chieftain tanks ordered and paid for by the Shah of Iran shortly before his 1979 overthrow – but says repayment must not breach sanctions.

Iran is hoping for improved diplomatic relations with the West following the US election victory of Joe Biden, who has promised to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal that was abandoned by President Donald Trump.

Mr Ratcliffe said any renewed negotiations with Iran must include commitments for it to end its hostage diplomacy.  “For too long we have skirted around this issue,” he said.

“The nuclear deal is meaningless unless this issue is addressed. It is simply not safe for normal relations until it is.”