Britain has been accused by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of paying “blood money” to bring home two UK-Iranian dual nationals from Tehran, claiming the move smacked of appeasement.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on Thursday back in Britain with her family after being detained by Tehran almost six years ago; Anoosheh Ashoori, another dual national returned with her to the UK.
But Pompeo claimed the payment by Britain of $ 530mn of debt owed to Iran – relating to a canceled tank order in 1979 – had rewarded “hostage takers”.
“That cash will terrorize Israel, UK and US,” he tweeted. Pompeo, secretary of state in the Trump administration, added: “Appeasement feels good until it fails – it always does.”
Downing Street said Britain had long recognized that the debt was legitimate and would have to be repaid; Tehran paid for a consignment of Chieftain tanks which was canceled after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the payment had been “ringfenced” for humanitarian purposes and had been made in “parallel” with the releases.
But Number 10 insisted the payment was “not contingent” on the freeing of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori: “The UK has never accepted our nationals being used for any political purpose.”
However, critics believe the two issues are intrinsically linked, whatever Downing Street’s protests to the contrary; Tom Tugendhat, Tory chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, called it a “ransom payment”.
Tugendhat referred to the US payment of $ 400mn to the Iranian government in 2016 – then President Barack Obama ordered pallets of cash to be sent to the country to secure the release of four Americans, but six months later six more American dual nationals were detained.
Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, said British officials had discussed the payment during her trip to Washington last week, suggesting she had “squared off” the US on the basis it was a purely bilateral UK-Iran issue.
Downing Street declined to say whether Washington approved the payment. Officials briefed on the deal, thrashed out after weeks of negotiations, said the payment is being held by an international bank, which will only release funds to Iran for humanitarian purposes.
To circumvent US sanctions on Iran, the British payment was identified as being exclusively for humanitarian purposes, although officials close to the deal said it was not, contrary to some reports, used to buy vaccines.
Downing Street said a “rigorous oversight” system had been in place to ensure the money was used for the agreed purpose, but refused to say what the process was – or who was involved in it. Both sides had agreed to keep the details “confidential”.
Along with the payment for the canceled tank order, the release of the two British nationals also coincided with renewed western diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
Johnson’s spokesman denied that Truss had renewed on an understanding in Washington last week that Morad Tahbaz, a third dual national who has UK, US and Iranian nationality, would be included in the deal.
Truss, who has won cross-party praise in the UK for her handling of the complex negotiations, has said Britain would continue to work with the US to secure the return of Tahbaz, who has been freed on furlough.
Downing Street said that a “small number” of UK nationals were still detained in Tehran but declined to say how many.
The Financial Times understands there are at least 18 dual foreign nationals detained in the country: three Australians, one Canadian, two French, two German, two Swedish, five American, and three American-British-Iranians. Also detained are one French national and an Iranian with permanent US residency.
In addition, two of those detained are considered forcibly disappeared by human rights organizations, as they have little or no contact with their families. Two are human rights defenders; one a women’s rights activist and one a labor rights activist.