Iranian reports on a deal to free British and American prisoners – including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – may have been deliberate misinformation by Tehran, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly suggested on Monday.
“We have also seen a number of occasions where the Iranian regime have used disinformation, we’re hearing inaccurate reports coming out over the last couple of days,” he told Sky News.
His comments came as Iran officially denied the Sunday state media report in which an unnamed Iranian official claimed that a deal had been reached to free Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in return for the UK repaying a 1970s-era arms debt.
“On the one hand, they are saying that these proceedings are legitimate, we don’t agree with that at all, but then also saying that they are linked to this legal dispute – it can’t be both,” Mr Cleverly said, referring to the criminal charges against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the money the UK owes Iran.
“We’re making it very, very clear. It is in the hands of the Tehran regime to release these people and they should be released,” he said.
On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said efforts to free Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe remained separate from discussions to repay the £400 million to Iran, which stems from the UK failing to deliver Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles ordered and paid for by the Shah of Iran shortly before his overthrow in the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“There are two entirely separate issues,” the Prime Minister told reporters.
“We of course make sure that we do everything we can to look after the interests of Nazanin and all the very difficult dual national cases we have in Tehran,” he said.
After the UK and the United States denied an agreement to exchange prisoners, Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Monday acknowledged no such deal had been reached.
“The reports from informed sources are not confirmed, as it was said in the past,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a news conference on Monday.
But he did suggest without elaborating that options remained open: “There are always plans and ideas to be pursued.”
The dispute is playing out as Western and Iranian negotiators in Vienna seek to salvage the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, which then-US president Donald Trump quit in 2018.
On Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Iran was treating Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe in the “most abusive, torturous way”.
Mr Raab accused Iran of exploiting Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Tehran since 2016, for hostage diplomacy.
“Nazanin is held unlawfully in my view as a matter of international law, I think she’s being treated in the most abusive, tortuous way,” Mr Raab told the BBC.
After completing her original five year sentence on spying charges in March, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to a further year in prison last week for making propaganda against the Islamic republic, which she denies.
“I think it amounts to torture the way she’s being treated and there is a very clear, unequivocal obligation on the Iranians to release her and all of those who are being held as leverage immediately and without condition,” Mr Raab said.
When asked if the UK government believed Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held as a hostage, Mr Raab said: “I think it’s very difficult to argue against that characterisation.”
On Monday Mr Raab was scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the G7 in London, where Iran was on the agenda.