As Iran's President Touts Openness, Britons Appeal For Release Of Prisoners Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani was at the United Nations this week encouraging the world to work with Iran. But two British men were also there, appealing for the release of relatives held in Iran.

As Iran's President Touts Openness, Britons Appeal For Release Of Prisoners

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Iran's president has said he wants better relations with the West. In New York today he addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and he talked about the nuclear deal that began this year. But for two British men, better relations would mean freedom for their loved ones. They came to New York to lobby for the release of family members imprisoned in Iran. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Hassan Rouhani is trying to cash in on the nuclear deal and show the Iranian people the economic benefits of this diplomacy. Speaking through an interpreter, he told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran is a good place to invest.

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PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Only eight months after the removal of the cruel nuclear-related sanctions, the economy of Iran is showing clear improvement.

KELEMEN: But a young British man, Richard Ratcliffe, says hardliners in Iran seem to be trying to undercut Rouhani, and he says his Iranian-born wife is a victim in this power struggle. She was arrested six months ago, and their 2-year-old daughter had her passport seized and is staying with her grandparents.

RICHARD RATCLIFFE: His government is trying to build positive relations and improve things with the West. I mean, you know, taking a mother and a baby in this way just so gets in the way. And I mean it's shameful.

KELEMEN: His wife, Nazanin Zaghari, works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation which trained journalists, though Ratcliffe says she wasn't working in Iran, just visiting her parents as she did often. And she was just sentenced by a secretive Iranian court to five years in prison.

RATCLIFFE: I think she's a bargaining chip. There's been a foreigner taken every month since March. She was one of them.

KELEMEN: In January the U.S. negotiated a prisoner exchange agreement with Iran to free several Iranian-Americans, though several more have been arrested since then. The U.S. also cleared longstanding Iranian financial claims in what looked to many critics like a ransom payment.

British Prime Minister Theresa May raised Ratcliffe's case and others when she met President Rouhani here at the U.N. this week. British officials say Iran is holding five British-Iranian dual nationals. One of them is the father of Kamran Faroughi.

KAMRAN FAROUGHI: We have no family in Tehran. We're all living in London. And he hasn't seen his wife, children, and grandchildren for well over five years.

KELEMEN: His father, Kamal Faroughi, was working for a Malaysian energy company when he was arrested and convicted of espionage, and his son has come to the U.N. three years in a row to press his case.

FAROUGHI: It's become very urgent because a few weeks ago he was diagnosed with cataracts. He needs an urgent operation to avoid blindness. This is a very standard operation that can be done very quickly. But the longer you - we leave it, the more likely it is that he will go blind.

KELEMEN: His father is 77 years old. Ratcliffe is worried, too, about the health of his 37-year-old wife. She was too frail to pick up their daughter in one of the family visits this year, and the rare phone calls he's had with her have been tough.

RATCLIFFE: She was deeply, deeply sad the previous phone call - like, desolate. But actually this time she was angry, which is a sign of being a bit stronger. So she was angry with the British government. She was angry with me, asked what was I doing. There was some fight in her, which, you know, I'm - yeah, I'm grateful that there's still some spirit.

KELEMEN: He and Faroughi are meeting as many diplomats as they can to try to press their case, but so far President Rouhani is said to be stonewalling when he's asked why so many dual nationals who could be helping Iran open up to the West are instead languishing in jail. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations.

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