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Nazanin’s homecoming could be part of something bigger

Nazanin’s homecoming could be part of something bigger

The official, and implausible, line from the British and American governments has always been that the talks in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and the negotiations to release UK and US hostages, are completely separate. Occasionally there’s been an accidental outbreak of truth-telling – as in January when the US Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said, “I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran” – but generally the fiction has held.

So what can we learn, or infer, about the state of the Vienna talks from the release of the two British hostages, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori; and, just as importantly, from the continued detention of another British citizen, Mehran Raoof, and the British-American Morad Tahbaz?

  • The first important fact to remember is that, for the last eight months, the UK has agreed to put on hold its efforts to bring back its hostages while the US tried to engineer a deal to return all British and American hostages at the same time. 
  • Second, it now seems clear that the British government sees Mehran Raoof in a different category from the others. He was active in campaigning for labour rights in Iran – something which might have been enough on its own to bring him to the attention of the authorities – so the Foreign Office appears not to regard him as a ‘pure’ hostage.
  • Morad Tahbaz’s position tells us more about the big picture. The British were leading the negotiations for his release, but he was also on Rob Malley’s list of “four innocent Americans”. If the US won’t do a deal in Vienna without bringing him home, what does it mean that he hasn’t been released? 

In effect it means that a resolution to the Vienna talks is either very far away, or very close.

If a deal is far away, the Biden administration must have given the nod to the UK to act unilaterally, to settle its tank debt and bring its hostages home. The alternative would have been to leave Nazanin and Anoosheh in Iran for potentially years to come while attempts were made to revive the Vienna talks.

If a deal is close, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will be a confidence-building step in its final stages. And the four American hostages, including Morad Tahbaz, will be part of the final package when that’s announced soon. At the moment, there’s more money going on this scenario than the gloomier one.