Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT expert with permanent United States residency, was released from Iranian custody on June 11, 2019. Zakka was arrested in Tehran in 2015 after being convicted for espionage on behalf of the U.S. government, charges he denies. The Iranian courts sentenced Zakka to 10 years of prison. Zakka’s release comes at a time of heightened U.S.-Iran tensions, as the U.S. recently withdrew from the Tehran Nuclear Agreement. The release was the result of intense negotiations between Iranian and Lebanese officials and in part due to the request of Lebanese President, Michel Aoun
Born in Lebanon, Zakka later moved to the United States where he attended the Riverside Military Academy in Georgia and pursued a computer science degree at the University of Texas. Zakka was detained in Tehran in 2015 after attending a conference at the invitation of the Iranian government. At the time of his arrest, Zakka was living in Washington with his wife and three children and was serving as the secretary general for a group called the Arab ICT Organization, a non-profit promoting access to information technology in the region.
After his release, Zakka spoke to reporters in Beirut. “I will not detail the conditions of my abduction, the fake accusations and mock trials,” He went on to say he would “always defend the freedom of expression”. He denied his release was part of a larger deal between the U.S. and Iran and was initiated and argued entirely by Lebanon.
The U.S. state department also later released a statement, welcoming Zakka’s release from his “unlawful imprisonment.” “We hope that Mr Zakka’s release is a positive sign for American detainees in Iran,” it added, referring to several U.S. citizens who remain in detention in Iran.
An Iranian judiciary official confirmed that Tehran had agreed to hand over Zakka to Lebanese officials, earlier on Tuesday. State TV quoted an anonymous source saying Zakka’s release should only be seen as a “sign of respect” for the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The Trump administration has not said whether it was involved in the negotiations for Zakka’s release, but this may be an indirect signal from Iran that the country is open to further negotiations with the U.S..
Iran still holds several dual nationals, including Iranian Americans as well as Chinese-born U.S. citizen and Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang. A court in Tehran convicted two Iranian Americans (Baquer Namazi, 82, and son, Siamak Namazi) of conspiring with the U.S. government in 2016. Their convictions were upheld this year.
The United States has reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran’s economy and has threatened to bolster U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region in an attempt to pressure Iran. “The United States continues to call on the Iranian regime to release missing and wrongfully detained American citizens,” the State Department spokesman said. “We will continue to do all we can to achieve their immediate and unconditional release.”
For decades, the Middle East has been a pressure point for the world. The move can be seen against the backdrop of diplomatic activity from the U.S. allies, aimed at deescalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, met his Iranian counterpart on Monday in Tehran. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also due to fly to Tehran on Wednesday.
Zakka’s release may be a response to the pressures the U.S. and Trump are placing on Iran. This may even indicate Iran is willing to open itself to diplomacy. However, this may also show Iran is avoiding to cooperate with U.S. and will only respond to the requests of other countries.
Iran has continually called the issue involving Zakka an issue between the Lebanese and Iranian governments, not one between Washington and Tehran. Zakka’s release is a reminder that many other U.S. citizens are still being held by Iran. Just as in physical wars, civilians are often the main casualties of an economic war. Iran’s move to release Zakka is a gesture of goodwill and a win for the Lebanese and U.S. governments, but this is all still part of a larger power struggle between the U.S. and Iran. Though the U.S. also denies any part in the negotiations for Zakka’s release, diplomatic actions like this are rarely performed out of goodwill.
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