British foreign minister in Oman, West's Iran interlocutor

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson traveled on Friday to Oman, the West's interlocutor when dealing with Iran, as he tries to free a detained British-Iranian woman held for months by the Islamic Republic.

Johnson met with Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and discussed regional issues, the state-run Oman News Agency reported without elaborating. Yusuf bin Alawi Abdullah, the Omani minister in charge of foreign affairs, also attended the meeting.

Johnson will head to Tehran on Saturday as part of his three-nation Gulf tour, which the Foreign Office described as a trip focusing in part on the Iran nuclear deal and "how to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen."

However, at the top of his list no doubt is trying to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the "soft toppling" of Iran's government while traveling there with her infant daughter. Her husband said Zaghari-Ratcliffe faces trial on new charges on Sunday that carry the possibility of an additional 16-years imprisonment.

Johnson faced withering criticism after he told a parliamentary committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was "teaching people journalism" when she was arrested last year. Her family and supporters long have said she was only traveling to visit relatives. Though Johnson later corrected himself, Iranian state television has made a point to repeatedly highlight them as justification for imprisoning her.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, said Johnson will visit Tehran on Saturday to meet Iranian officials, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

Britain and Iran also have been discussing the release of some 400 million pounds ($530 million) held by London, a payment Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The shah abandoned the throne in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution soon installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.

Authorities in London and Tehran deny that the payment has any link to Zaghari-Ratcliffe. However, a prisoner exchange in January 2016 that freed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans also saw the United States make a $400 million cash delivery to Iran the same day. That money too involved undelivered military equipment from the shah's era, and some U.S. politicians have criticized the transfer, calling it a ransom payment.

Oman, a Gulf Arab country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is a U.S. and British ally that has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos since 1970. It has served as a mediator between Iran and the West on previous occasions, including in securing the release of detained Iranian-Canadian retired professor Homa Hoodfar in September 2016.

Oman also hosted the secret talks between Washington and Tehran that eventually led to the 2015 nuclear deal. It also has helped free Westerners held by Shiite rebels in Yemen in recent years.

Johnson also plans to visit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on this trip.


Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat, in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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