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UK accused of ‘abandoning’ citizen still imprisoned in Iran

LONDON — The family of Morad Tahbaz — a British-American-Iranian citizen still imprisoned in Iran — have accused the U.K. government of ignoring their objections to a deal to keep him in detention while securing the high-profile release of two other prisoners.

Tahbaz and seven fellow conservationists working for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were detained in Iran in 2018. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of spying for the U.S. and undermining Iran’s security. He denies those charges.

Tahbaz, who was born in Britain but also has U.S. citizenship, was released into house arrest last week when a much-heralded agreement to release two other prisoners — Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori — was struck. The pair were fully released last Wednesday and have now returned to the U.K., but Tahbaz is back in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Members of Tahbaz’s family told POLITICO they had twice warned the U.K. government not to strike a deal under which Iran would transfer him to house arrest while completely releasing Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori. They said they feared such a deal would not lead to Tahbaz’s eventual release and that it offered no guarantee he would not be returned to prison.

They also alleged that the British government gave them no advance warning of the latest deal.

Tahbaz’s daughter, Roxanne, said her father, who suffers from cancer and has had COVID-19 twice during his imprisonment, is now on hunger strike in protest at the way he had “been abandoned” by the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

She added: “He was born in the U.K. and while the FCDO is saying his case was complicated because the Iranians chose to treat him as an American, it is not up to them. He’s English. They can’t choose how to treat him. He’s a U.K. citizen as well — just because he lives in the U.S. doesn’t make him any less of a U.K. citizen.”

A second relative, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the U.K. government: “They were so anxious to go on this victory lap that they didn’t finalize a proper deal for Morad, they just left him in the air, abandoned.”

The U.K.’s Foreign Office said it was “urgently raising Morad’s case at the highest levels of the Iranian government.”

Deal rejected

According to the family, an agreement that would have seen Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori released but Tahbaz moved out of prison to house arrest was first proposed by the then-U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on January 19, 2021.

Tahbaz’s family rejected that offer, on the basis that the U.K. government would not be able to guarantee Tahbaz would not later be returned to prison, and amid wider skepticism that the United States would waive its own sanctions on Iran to allow Britain to settle a historic debt with Tehran.

Raab pitched the same deal to the family a second time during an hour-long phone conversation on July 22, 2021, with the family rejecting it again. Raab was moved to a different department some weeks later in a government reshuffle and the case passed onto Liz Truss, his successor as foreign secretary.

Raab “was trying to push this deal through” and “assured us he would trust the Iranians,” the second relative said.

But they added: “We as a family declined and we said Morad is the only U.K.-born [prisoner]. You’re leaving him behind, and as you can see, we were foretelling what happened today … He’s on a hunger strike, he’s devastated, and he can’t believe how the U.K. has been playing with his life.”

Raab declined to comment.

The family members said that when London and Tehran struck a deal for the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori last week, they were not consulted beforehand and only learned the news from the media.

Truss has expressed hopes that Tahbaz could be released as part of negotiations to revive an international deal on Iran’s nuclear program. But the family fears the U.K. has lost its leverage to get Tahbaz out after settling a debt of nearly £400 million owed to Tehran since the 1970s.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is among those who have criticized the U.K. government’s decision to pay the debt, accusing London of paying “blood money” and “rewarding hostage-takers.”

The second relative asked: “The question is: If they gave Iran 100 percent of what Iran has been asking for the last four years, why are they complimenting themselves on their skillful negotiations?”

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are urgently raising Morad’s case at the highest levels of the Iranian government. He must be allowed to return to his family’s home in Tehran immediately, as the Iranian government committed to doing.”

Truss told the House of Commons last week that the government had “pushed very hard to get Morad out of prison” but described his situation as “very, very difficult” because Iranian authorities are treating him as a U.S. citizen as well as a Brit.

Taraneh Tahbaz, Morad’s sister, said her brother had become a “pawn in geopolitical strategies.”

“The deal has been done, the money has been paid. Morad was not included in the deal that was struck, he still remains a hostage and this nightmare is not over,” she said.

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