A Briton imprisoned in Iran for more than two years on weapons charges returned home Tuesday after being released from a Tehran prison.

Nicholas Nicola, 23, was met by his father and by Foreign Office officials at London's Heathrow Airport following his arrival on an Iran Air flight.He smiled as he walked down the airplane's steps, and was then driven directly out of the airport from the aircraft without commenting on his ordeal. The Foreign Office would not disclose his whereabouts.

News of Nicola's release first came from the English-Language newspaper Tehran Times, which reported Tuesday that he had been turned over to British Charge d'Affaires Gordon Pirie on Monday.

The newspaper report was carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency and later confirmed by the British Foreign Office.

Britain said Nicola, a tourist traveling by land from Pakistan when arrested, had been held without trial since September 1986. But the IRNA report said he had been officially charged, tried and sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for "the possession of two weapons and a number of cartridges."

It said Nicola was freed because of "good behavior in prison."

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman called the release "an important step forward."

Britain and Iran agreed Dec. 9 to restore diplomatic ties, ending a 19-month strain that began when an Iranian envoy was arrested in Manchester, northern England, on shoplifting charges in May 1987.

Earlier this year, a British diplomat, David Reddaway, was allowed to visit Nicola and another Briton, Roger Cooper, at Tehran's maximum security Evin prison. He reported both men were physically fit.

Cooper, 52, a businessman who has lived in Iran for more than 20 years, was originally detained in November 1985 for overstaying his visa. He later was charged with spying.

Nicola's release raised hopes that Cooper may soon be freed. The gradual easing of strain between the two countries may also signal new hope for British hostages believed held in Lebanon.