After Nazanin: will Morad Tahbaz be released next by Iran?

Jailed conservationist left behind following release of two other British-Iranian nationals

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori arrive back in the UK
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori arrive back in the UK
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori has put the plight of another British national, jailed in Iran four years ago, back in the spotlight.

Morad Tahbaz, 66, an Iranian-American-British conservationist and businessman, was arrested by Iranian authorities in January 2018 alongside eight other individuals linked to the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), an organisation he co-founded.

“The group were accused of espionage after tracking endangered species with cameras”, The Guardian reported, but had in fact “been researching endangered animals such as the Asiatic cheetah and the Persian leopard”.

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Unlawful detention

Iranian authorities have long claimed that Tahbaz and his team of environmentalists were “using the scientific and environmental projects as a cover for collecting classified information”, The Guardian said. In November 2019, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with prosecutors citing his “contacts with the US enemy government”.

At the time, a group of UN human rights experts said it was “hard to fathom how working to preserve the Iranian flora and fauna can possibly be linked to conducting espionage against Iranian interests”. Instead, they accused Tehran of “arresting and investigating peaceful scientific activists for their invaluable conservationist work”.

Kavous Seyed Emami, who co-founded the PWHF with Tahbaz, died in custody after his arrest on 24 January 2018. Iranian authorities later informed his family that he had died by suicide while being held in the notorious high-security Evin prison.

Following the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted the government was working “to secure Morad’s departure from Iran” after he was “released from prison on furlough”. He is now living “under house arrest and the UK government has vowed to secure his release”, The Times reported.

The father of three has previously been refused the right to “return to the UK due to complications arising from his US citizenship”, The Guardian said. Tehran has consistently stated throughout his detention that it considers him to be a US citizen.

US officials are also working to secure his release, with US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley describing him as a “father, an environmentalist and a cancer victim”.

‘He is a pawn’

The terms of the agreement that led to the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori have not been made public. But it is clear that “Tahbaz, the only one of the three born in the UK, must remain in Iran as part of the deal”, The National reported.

“A fourth prisoner, Mehran Raoof, a veteran trades unionist who once lived in north London and was sentenced to jail for 10 years during a sweep of human rights activists, has not featured in official UK government statements about the deal,” the paper added.

Speaking to The Times, Tarane Ahbaz, Tahbaz’s sister, said: “We were in touch with them right up until two days before when they told us there was great hope that all three were coming together. There was this build-up and then suddenly silence.

“The big conundrum now is that they have paid this debt and where does that leave my brother? What card do they have to play? You get a feeling after all this that he is a pawn.”

The debt that Ahbaz referred to is a “£400m tank debt” accrued when the UK “cancelled an order for 1,500 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles” following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Sky News reported.

The state-owned Fars news agency reported on Wednesday that the debt had been paid to Iran to secure the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori. “This has not been confirmed by the British government,” the broadcaster added.

Relatives of Tahbaz say he “remains under guard in a two-bedroom flat with his wife”, The Times said. She “has also had her passport confiscated by the Iranian regime” and the pair have “no liberty to speak to the outside world”.

Ahbaz said: “It really has made us lose confidence in the Foreign Office’s efforts towards us. The irony is that he is the only British-born member of the group and among the hostages and he is the one who has been left behind.”

US politicians have accused Truss of reneging on an agreement to have US political prisoners freed from Iran at the same time as Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori. Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman who has fought for Tahbaz’s release, said: “Sadly, it appears that the United Kingdom has struck its own deal and that’s concerning.”

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, told ITV that the government “needs to follow up on Nazanin and Anoosheh’s release by immediately renewing its calls for the release of the UK nationals Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz”.

Both are “going through an ordeal all too similar to Nazanin and Anoosheh’s”, he said, adding that it has “been clear for years that the Iranian authorities are targeting foreign nationals with spurious national security-related charges to exert diplomatic pressure”.