Iran frees British climate activist in $6bn US prisoner swap deal

Morad Tahbaz with his daughter, Roxanne, who has campaigned in Britain for ministers to do more to secure his release
Morad Tahbaz with his daughter, Roxanne, who has campaigned in Britain for ministers to do more to secure his release - ROXANNE TAHBAZ/REUTERS

A British environmentalist held hostage in Iran is among five prisoners who have been released in a $6bn swap deal with the United States.

Morad Tahbaz, who holds British, American and Iranian citizenship, was among the prisoners flown out of Iran on Monday afternoon, following weeks of negotiation between Washington and Tehran.

London-born Mr Tahbaz, 67, was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against Iran’s national security” while working as a climate activist.

His imprisonment has become a major diplomatic dispute between Iran and the UK, and has featured in negotiations between the governments over the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Roxanne Tahbaz, his daughter, has campaigned in Britain for ministers to do more to secure his release, including at protests outside the Foreign Office.

But Mr Tahbaz was left in Iran when Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British-Iranian dual national, Anoosheh Ashoori, were released in a deal negotiated by Liz Truss, when she was Foreign Secretary.

Morad Tahbaz, 67, was sentenced to 10 years in  jail for 'assembly and collusion against Iran’s national security'
Morad Tahbaz, 67, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for 'assembly and collusion against Iran’s national security' - JAMIE LORRIMAN

His release comes as part of a controversial prisoner-swap deal between Iran and the US that led to five detainees on each side change hands on Monday.

A senior US official said all five prisoners were flying from Iran to Doha for a stopover, before continuing to the US. Two family members and Qatar’s ambassador to Iran accompanied them.

Joe Biden’s administration has drawn criticism over the terms of the agreement, which include the unfreezing of $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian assets held in South Korea.

Although the deal stipulates that the money can be spent by Iran only on humanitarian projects and will otherwise be held in Qatar, some Republicans have argued that the additional funds could be used to finance the development of nuclear weapons.

Senior figures in the GOP said the funds amounted to a “ransom” payment for the five US nationals.

The White House said the US government’s existing sanctions regime would remain in place despite the prisoner deal and stressed that American taxpayer dollars had not been given to Iran.

“We do remain focused on constraining Iran’s nuclear programme, constraining its destabilising behaviour. We remain committed to ensuring it never obtains a nuclear weapon,” said Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, last week.

The US nationals released on Monday include Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges, and Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years. Two other freed prisoners have not been named.

Iranian state television said on Monday that two of the five freed Iranian prisoners had landed in Doha from the US.

The unfrozen money used to secure the deal was originally held in South Korea, which owed it to Iran for oil purchased before sanctions on such transactions were imposed by the US in 2019.

The funds were first sent to Qatar, which is acting as a mediator in the deal, via Switzerland.

Bargaining chips by Iran

Nasser Kanaani, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said: “The issue of swap of prisoners will be done on this day and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the US.

“Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side reciprocally, based on their will. We expect these two issues [to] fully take place based on agreement.”

Human rights groups and the families of the imprisoned Americans say they have been used as bargaining chips by Iran to achieve leverage over Western governments.

US sanctions against Iran have existed in various forms since the 1979 hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran.

Mr Biden has so far failed to deliver on a promise to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear deal with Iran that would have lifted sanctions in exchange for assurances that the country will limit its nuclear capabilities.

Iran has escalated its nuclear weapons programme since Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, terminated the US’s involvement in the JCPOA in 2018.

Last week, Mr Biden announced new sanctions on Iranian officials and organisations accused of involvement in the “violent suppression” of anti-government protests one year ago.

As the American prisoners left Iranian airspace, Mr Biden announced new sanctions against the country, including on the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian intelligence ministry.

‘We also remember those who did not return’

The sanctions are linked to the disappearance and death of Bob Levinson, a CIA agent who disappeared on a mission in Iran in 2007 and was later presumed to have died.

The Iranian government has always denied knowledge or involvement in his disappearance, but US government officials believe Iranian intelligence officers were behind “proof of life” photographs sent to Mr Levinson’s family.

“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return,” Mr Biden said.

“I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers.

“Today, we are sanctioning former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act for their involvement in wrongful detentions. And, we will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.”

He added that American passport holders should not travel to Iran.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.