The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hailed Iranian reports that a £400 million deal had been secured for her release as a “good sign”, as Britain insisted talks were ongoing.
Iranian state media claimed on Sunday that Tehran had struck a deal in which London would repay a 1970s arms debt to secure her freedom.
“The release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in exchange for the UK’s payment of its £400 million debt to Iran has … been finalised,” an Iranian official said.
Richard Ratcliffe, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, told The Telegraph that the family had not yet heard anything from London or Tehran, adding: “It’s probably a good sign that it’s being signalled, just as last week’s sentence was a bad sign. But my instinct is it is still a negotiating tactic.”
He added: “It doesn’t feel like things are resolved yet, even if the parameters are clearer and clearer.”
Referring to the debt, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “We continue to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and will not comment further as discussions are ongoing.”
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already completed a five-year prison sentence in Iran over dubious spying charges. She was sentenced to an additional year in prison last week on charges of plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic, which she strongly denies.
The fresh sentence came after a UK High Court hearing to resolve the £400 million debt payment was postponed without explanation. British sources said on Sunday night that the trial had been delayed at the request of the Iranian Ministry of Defence.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, will meet with Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, tomorrow at the G7 in London, where Iran will be on the agenda.
The United States strongly denied separate Iranian claims on Sunday that a deal involving a US-Iran prisoner swap had been agreed.
Iranian treatment of Nazanin ‘amounts to torture’
It came as Mr Raab said Iran’s treatment of the British-Iranian aid worker amounted to “torture”, the strongest rhetoric from the Government on the case so far.
“I think it amounts to torture the way she’s being treated,” Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme. He added that there was an “obligation on Iran to release her immediately and without condition”.
He also said it was “very difficult to argue” against claims that she was being held by Iran as a hostage.
“It is clear that she is subjected to a cat and mouse game that the Iranians, or certainly part of the Iranian system, engage with and they try to use her for leverage on the UK,” he said.
Mr Raab went on to stress that her imprisonment was “not solely” related to the arms debt. “We’ve said that debt is something we want to have resolved,” he added.
Iran is facing elections in June that will choose a successor to President Hassan Rouhani and is engaged in key talks in Vienna on restoring the Obama-era nuclear deal.
The dispute over the arms debt dates back to the 1970s, when the Shah of Iran paid the UK £400 million for 1,500 Chieftain tanks. The UK then refused to deliver the tanks after the Shah was toppled in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said last September that “the Government acknowledges there is a debt to be paid”.
US denies deal to swap prisoners
The United States poured cold water on Iranian claims that Tehran and Washington had agreed to swap four US prisoners for four Iranian prisoners as well as the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds.
Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s chief of staff, told CBS’ Face the Nation that “unfortunately, that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.”
“We’re working very hard to get them released,” Mr Klain said. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there’s no agreement.”
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said the US had “not yet reached agreement” with Iran, adding that “there’s still fair distance to travel to close the remaining gaps”.
Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP who is in close contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family, praised Mr Raab for increasing the pressure on Iran.
“I am aware there are news reports circulating about the debt being paid to #FreeNazanin. I have spoken to her family and they have heard nothing confirming any of these rumours,” she wrote on Twitter.
“It was however welcome to hear Dominic Raab refer to her torture this morning on Marr. I hope the Government is doing all it can to get the hostages home.”