The United States would not oppose Britain paying off a decades-old debt it owes to Iran in order to bring home jailed dual nationals including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, the US Secretary of State said.
Anthony Blinken has said the choice to pay the £400 million debt was a “sovereign decision for the United Kingdom”, in remarks that apparently lift a key barrier to any agreement to bring the prisoners home.
Speaking on Radio Four’s Today programme, Mr Blinken said he would not comment on the details of that case, but emphasised that the US was seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Donald Trump quit in 2018.
“We’ve been engaged in Vienna for some weeks with our European partners, Russia and China, and indirectly with Iran,” he said.
“We’ve demonstrated our seriousness of purpose in terms of wanting to get back into the so-called JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. Compliance for compliance. What we don’t yet know is whether Iran is prepared to make the same decision and move forward.”
British Iranian-dual nationals currently jailed in Iran including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker from north London; Mr Ashoori, a London-based businessman; and Morad Tahbaz, the co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage foundation, who also holds US citizenship.
All have faced opaque charges of espionage or contact with foreign governments, which they deny.
The families of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori say they are innocent and being held as political hostages to force the UK to pay the debt, which dates back to an unfulfilled 1970s arms deal and which Britain has acknowledged in court that it owes.
Mr Blinken’s remarks will be seen as encouraging because one stumbling block to settling the debt is believed to be US sanctions against Iran, which have deterred many international banks from facilitating trade with the country.
On Sunday, Iranian state media cited an anonymous official source saying a deal to release the prisoners in exchange for payment of the debt, alongside a similar deal with the US to release Americans in exchange for unfreezing of Iranian assets, was close to being agreed.
Iran and Britain have never officially admitted a direct link between the debt and the charges against the British dual nationals, although relatives say it has been made clear to the prisoners themselves.
Mr Blinken flies to Ukraine to meet president Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Mr Blinken was speaking after a three-day summit with fellow G7 leaders in London, and shortly before he flew on to Ukraine for talks with president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Speaking in Kyiv, he warned that the United States may ramp up security assistance to this country in the aftermath of Russia’s worrying military build-up.
In April Moscow amassed some 80,000 troops and military equipment along the Ukrainian border and in occupied Crimea in the strongest show of force since the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014, killing more than 13,000 people.
Ukrainian officials have since been pushing for Washington to expand its military aid in the face of possible Russian aggression.
“We’ll continue to strengthen our security partnership and in-flux collaboration with you to make sure Ukraine can defend itself against aggression,” he said, urging Russia to “cease reckless and aggressive actions,” Mr Blinken said at the meeting.
He also said that although Russia had withdrawn some troops from the border, “significant forces remain there” and Russia appeared to be signalling that “it has the capacity on a fairly short notice to take aggressive action if it so chooses.”
President Zelenskiy told Mr Blinken of a persisting threat from Russia, adding that Ukraine has intelligence of about 3,500 Russian troops being pulled back while an estimated 75,000 are still stationed not far from the border.
Mr Blinken, the first top US official to travel to Ukraine since President Biden’s election, on Thursday morning visited Kyiv’s memorial to fallen Ukrainian soldiers who died in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed separatists.
President Zelenskiy tweeted ahead of the visit that Ukraine needs a clear commitment about Ukraine’s future membership in Nato and the EU.
“Postponing these issues for ‘later’, ‘some day, ‘in ten years’, has to end,” he said.