Tehran on June 11 freed Nizar Zakka, 52, a U.S. permanent resident and Lebanese citizen it had falsely accused of espionage. Zakka, who moved to America in his teens, emerged from jail after nearly four years behind bars, cutting short a 10-year sentence imposed after a trial that lasted only several minutes. While the reason for Zakka’s release remains unclear, Tehran’s decision brings renewed attention to the plight of U.S. and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran, whom the regime may seek to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations with Washington.
Upon his departure from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, Zakka flew straight to Beirut, accompanied by Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s general security chief. Zakka then met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and received a congratulatory call from Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. The initiative for his release, Zakka said after his conversation with Aoun, “was born in Lebanon … and has ended in Lebanon.”
In a separate interview, Zakka said a February visit to Lebanon by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, played a key role in precipitating his freedom. Aoun raised the issue with Zarif and, said Zakka, “was clear that this was a very important issue for Lebanon.”
Zakka, an information technology expert and internet freedom activist, assessed that his release “was a good move by the Iranians, because they will look like they’re doing a favor for Lebanon as a friendly country, without giving concessions to the U.S.” Before his arrest, Zakka’s company, the Arab ICT Organization, or IJMA3, had received at least $730,000 in contracts and grants from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Iran may hope that Zakka’s release will spur the Trump administration to offer the regime concessions in exchange for the remaining hostages. “I put this offer on the table publicly now: Exchange them,” said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in April. “Let’s discuss them. Let’s have an exchange. I’m ready to do it, and I have authority to do it.”
Iran has a successful record of negotiating such exchanges. In 2016, Washington secured the freedom of four Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, by releasing seven Iranian sanctions violators, dropping charges on 14 at-large Iranians suspected of similar offenses, and airlifting $400 million in cash to the regime. The Obama administration subsequently sent Iran an additional $1.3 billion, but claimed that the payments aimed to settle an old debt to Tehran.
In the days since his release, Zakka has repeatedly highlighted the plight of Iran’s other hostages. Zakka said he shared a cell with Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student at Princeton University, who also received a 10-year sentence on spurious spying charges. Other U.S. and foreign dual nationals, Zakka noted, occupied cells nearby. “You will never see anyplace so horrible,” said Zakka, referring to Evin Prison.
Zakka said he also “heard some stories” about former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007. “Some people told me that they saw him,” said Zakka. “It wasn’t confirmed stories.” Levinson’s current status remains unknown.
“I really ask President Trump to not leave Xiyue behind and other Americans behind, please,” said Zakka.
However, if the Trump administration does talk to Iran about the hostages, it should make clear that Washington will refuse to pay ransoms of any kind, which would only incentivize Tehran to seize additional captives. Instead, it should inform the regime that U.S. economic pressure will continue to escalate unless and until the regime takes steps to halt the full range of its malign conduct.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.