LONDON -- A British businessman, jailed in Iran on spy charges five years ago, flew home yesterday after his surprise release.
The freeing of Roger Cooper, 55, was seen as new evidence of Iran's interest in improving relations with Britain and the West.
His release was announced only after he was on board a London-bound flight, a precaution against any attempt by hard-liners in Tehran to block it.
Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said the move was "an important step" in Anglo-Iranian relations.
"We have on many occasions made clear that we wanted a better relationship with Iran," Mr. Hurd said.
The British government has also demanded the release of three British hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon as another precondition to any bilateral improvement. The hostages are journalist John McCarthy; the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, Terry Waite; and a longtime British resident of Beirut, Jackie Mann.
"Their freeing would open a new chapter in British-Iranian relations, a development I am sure both sides desire," Mr. Hurd said.
Mr. Waite's cousin, John Waite, told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday, "This release of Roger Cooper does brighten the sky a heck of a lot. . . . We hope that other releases will follow."
Catherine Comerford, organizer of a campaign to free Mr. McCarthy, said she desperately hoped it was good news for Mr. McCarthy and the others, but she cautioned that they were in "a very different category."
"We've had no contact with the hostages, and they're being held by pro-Iran groups, not the Iranians themselves," she said.
April 17 would be the fifth anniversary of Mr. McCarthy's captivity.
Iran promised to use its influence to secure the hostages' release when it restored diplomatic relations with Britain two years ago, but Douglas Hogg, a minister at the Foreign Office, said yesterday that there was still "no reason to think the three hostages are soon to be released."