Britain is reportedly looking to pay approximately $600 million to Iran, settling a decades-old debt, as it attempts to secure the release of an Iranian-British woman being held in the Islamic Republic on espionage charges.
But Iranian and British officials denied that the two matters were tied.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is hoping to improve relations with Iran while he works to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by paying for a 1970s arms deal interrupted by the Islamic revolution, British media reported on Thursday.
The former shah of Iran paid the British government £650 million ($855 million) for 1,750 tanks, but only 185 were delivered before his regime was brought down in 1979 and the remainder of the order was canceled.
In 2009, the International Chamber of Commerce ordered Britain to repay Iran £450 million ($592 million) for the tanks that were never delivered, but UN and EU sanctions levied against Iran prevented the repayment.
Reports in British media speculated that Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held by Iran as collateral for the unpaid debt, but officials quickly denied the two issues were linked.
“We don’t see any link between these two issues,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May told Reuters. “The reports are speculation, not anything that I recognize.”
And a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry also denied the issues were tied. “These are two separate matters… Linking them is wrong,” he said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 38-year-old charity worker, is accused of plotting the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government, and has been incarcerated in Tehran since April 2016.
The dual British-Iranian citizen maintains she was simply visiting family when she was arrested.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation is delicate because Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship for its nationals. This means that those with dual citizenship don’t normally receive the same level of consular assistance from UK authorities as those who have only a British passport.
Her case was further complicated this month when Johnson suggested Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists, and the Iranian judiciary seized on the statement as proof of the allegations against her.
Johnson insisted it was a misstatement, and last week apologized for any harm done.
On Wednesday, Johnson met with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband and vowed he would “leave no stone unturned” to secure the release of his wife.