Iranian 'spy' scientist flies home after release from US prison, raising hopes of prisoner swap

David Rose
Iranian scientist Dr Sirous Asgari is due to arrive in Tehran tomorrow

The families of British dual nationals imprisoned by Iran today criticised the Foreign Office for “complete inaction” in trying to secure their release, as an Iranian scientist previously jailed by the US was allowed to fly home.  

A plane carrying Sirous Asgari took off early this morning and was on its way back to Tehran to bring him home, Iran’s foreign minister announced, raising hopes of a potential prisoner swap for Western dual nationals in Iran.

Mr Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio, where he visited a university working on projects for the US Navy.

However, the 59-year-old scientist from Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, was acquitted in November when an American judge dismissed the case against him.

Several British, US and other dual nationals remain imprisoned or on temporary release in Iran, typically on controversial charges of espionage.    

They include British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, jailed in 2016, and retired engineer Anoosheh Ashoori, 66, who has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since August 2017.

Both the US Department of Homeland Security and the Iranian Foreign Ministry today denied reports that Mr Asgari’s release was part of a prisoner swap, but such arrangements have been made in the past, despite the breakdown in diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was briefly released from prison as part of Iran's response to the coronavirus pandemic - PA

Mr Ashoori’s wife, Sherry Izadi, from South London, contrasted previous prisoner exchanges by Washington and Tehran with the “complete inaction” of the Foreign Office to secure British citizens’ release.

“Once again Iran and US may have agreed a prisoner swap despite their very hostile and tense relationship, but the UK has yet to secure anyone's release,” she said, adding that she feared for her husband’s health. “Covid-19 fears in prison remain in force, especially in view of the unprecedented rise in cases in Iran – [including] 3,000 in one day.”

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, added that this week could prove “decisive” for his wife’s case, after the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced he would grant clemency to thousands of prisoners who have less than five years of their sentences left to serve. 

“Obviously we are keeping a tally on the relative success of different Western countries in resolving Iranian hostage cases, and bringing their people home, and our fingers are crossed for all the Americans held In Iran right now,” he said.

“I think the next week or so will be decisive for whether Nazanin will get ‘clemency’, or whether the law will not be followed again in her case. Yesterday I wasn’t very positive, but this news again gives us all hope.”

In December, Iran released American citizen Xiyue Wang, who had been imprisoned for three years on controversial spying charges, in exchange for the release of an Iranian scientist detained in the United States.

Other prisoners include Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic jailed since 2018 , and Aras Amiri, who works for the British Council in London and was arrested on a family visit to Iran the same year.  

The current pandemic has accelerated calls for both Washington and Tehran to release foreign prisoners who could be at risk. Mr Asgari, who is expected to return to Tehran tomorrow, was said to have contracted coronavirus in a US holding centre while awaiting deportation.  

The Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy is expected to renew pressure on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to secure the release of British prisoners in Iran, after speaking to their families this week.