The lawyers of jailed British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are alleging that the UK government has stalled payment of a £400 million debt to Iran, which could secure her freedom, for fear of offending the Trump administration.
In a letter to UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Zaghari-Ratcliffe's lawyers say postponing the next court hearing on the dispute over the money until after the U.S. elections suggests that the UK government is waiting for "implicit permission from the US government" to pay the acknowledged debt to Iran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she headed back to Britain with her daughter after a family visit, and was sentenced to five years in jail for "soft subversion" of Iran's clerical establishment. She is currently on furlough for coronavirus.
The initial dispute goes back to a 1970s defense deal between the Royal Iranian Defense Ministry and International Military Services (I.M.S.), a venture owned by the British Ministry of Defence, to sell Iran 1,700 Chieftain tanks and armored vehicles for more than £650 million pounds.
In February 1979, immediately after the revolution, the new regime in Iran canceled the contracts. Having already paid for 1,515 undelivered tanks, Tehran demanded its money back, plus interest.
Presently, the U.K. courts are in control of an account holding nearly £500m (roughly $610 million) from the U.K. government-owned company behind the deal, but it cannot be transferred because of the banking sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Iran. The next court hearing on the dispute over the interest demanded by Iran has been scheduled for March.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has repeatedly said that Iran has taken his wife hostage to force the British government to pay its four-decade-old debt. The UK and Iranian governments have both denied that Zaghari-Ratcliffe's imprisonment in Iran is tied to the dispute between the two governments over the debt and the interest that Iran demands.
In their seven-page letter quoted by the Guardian on Tuesday, the lawyers representing Zaghari-Ratcliffe wrote that it is important that the UK both honors its legally owed obligation to Iran and also holds the Iranian government accountable for its illegal treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe under Iranian law. Zaghari-Ratcliffe's lawyers accused the British government of doing "precisely the opposite: obtusely refusing to discharge its legal obligation, whilst remaining silent and appeasing Iran in the face of Tehran's atrocious abuse of Nazanin's human rights.”