Iran is believed to be holding two British-Australian women captive in the hope of exchanging one of them for an Iranian imprisoned in the US on charges of evading American sanctions.
Tensions between Britain and Iran escalated dramatically after it emerged the women were being held in the first recent case of Tehran arresting British citizens who do not also hold Iranian nationality.
One woman, a travel blogger, was arrested this summer while visiting Iran with her Australian fiancée. The second woman, a university lecturer, was seized earlier and has reportedly already been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Telegraph is not naming them at the request of the Foreign Office.
Sources said Tehran sees the women as bargaining chips to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani, a 40-year-old Iranian woman facing jail in the US after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to export prohibited technology to Iran.
Ghodskani was arrested in Australia in 2017 at the request of US government and gave birth to a baby boy while in custody in Adelaide. She was extradited to the US and now faces five years in federal prison.
Iran’s government has repeatedly called for her release. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, publicly suggested she could be swapped in exchange for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother imprisoned in Tehran.
“Nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison, whose child is growing up outside prison with the mother in prison,” Mr Zarif said in April. “I put this offer on the table publicly now: exchange them.”
Iran is believed now to be considering leveraging at least one of the British-Australian women in an effort to free Ghodskani from US prison. Australia’s government is taking the lead in dealing with Iran on the case.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, called for the women’s release on Wednesday and said Iran “should behave like any other civilisation in the world” by following the rule of law.
The travel blogger and her fiancée were arrested in July after entering Iran as part of a months-long trip across Asia, which they chronicled on Youtube and Instagram.
They were arrested after flying a drone in Tehran without a license, according to Manoto, a UK-based Iranian news site associated with Iranian opposition groups.
Both women are understood to be being held in Evin Prison, the Tehran facility where Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been imprisoned since 2016.
Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, accused Iran of pursuing “state-sponsored kidnap”.
“The British government must do more to stop our citizens being used as political pawns by the Iranian government,” he told The Telegraph.
Alistair Burt, the former Foreign Office minister, described the turn of events in Iran as "deeply worrying".
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think Iran does work on a basis of putting the pressure on those countries that are hostile to it, or it believes are hostile to it, and hostage-taking appears to have become part of the practice.
"It's deeply worrying because those who are seeking a new relationship with Iran, those who recognise that Iran reacts under pressure not very well and are looking for an opportunity to change the nature of the relationship having secured the nuclear deal a couple of years ago, in which Iran had to make serious concessions. Iran now finds that broken by the United States, it looks to hit back.”
The Foreign Office declined to comment.
It states on its website: “There is a risk that British nationals, and a higher risk that British-Iranian dual nationals, could be arbitrarily detained in Iran. All British nationals should consider carefully the risks of travelling to Iran.”