By Edward Carney
On Tuesday, the US State Department released a statement responding to the Iranian government’s release of Nizar Zakka, one of several persons with US citizenship or close ties to the West who have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in recent years. The statement praised the decision but also included demands for similar action on the other detainees. The department expressed hope that Zakka’s release could be a sign of more general progress, although the veracity of that conclusion has yet to be determined.
For his part, Zakka had words for the State Department and the Trump administration in general. “Please get your hostages back from Iran,” he was quoted as saying. The remarks suggests that the former prisoner has little confidence in the Iranian regime’s willingness to act on its own accord in such matters. Although Zakka speculated that his release would function as a sort of concession to the US during a time of escalating tensions between it and the Islamic Republic, he also emphasized that his unique situation influenced Iran’s decision-making about that specific case.
While Zakka holds permanent resident status in the United States, he is a citizen of Lebanon, the home of Iran’s leading foreign-headquartered proxy group, Hezbollah. As he himself explained during press interviews in the wake of his release, this gave Tehran the opportunity to portray the gesture as a show of good faith for Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, even if it also had a secret, secondary purpose. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did apparently have a role in negotiating the release.
Although this was new information provided by Lebanon’s head of internal security, it was already well-known that Lebanese officials had been pursuing Zakka’s release for months, if not years. In fact, the State Department’s public communication expressly thanked these officials. This was done without reference to the fact that some of them, including President Michel Aoun, apparently maintain close ties with the paramilitary group that has long been subject to terrorist designation by the State Department.
The Times also pointed out that neither Zakka nor any other person with knowledge of his situation has indicated that talks between Iran and the US preceded the release. The White House has publicly expressed interest in direct negotiations, which would be largely but not exclusively focused on Iran’s nuclear program. Last year, President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, citing issues with its limited duration and its failure to address Iran’s missile development or regional role. This was a major promise during his 2016 campaign, but Trump also vowed to make the release of American detainees a major priority.
Some family members and other supporters of those hostages have criticized the administration for seemingly not doing enough to advance the dialogue on that issue beyond where it stood at the departure of his predecessor, Barack Obama. It is not clear how, if at all, Zakka’s release will affect these views. Neither is it clear whether Zakka himself views the Trump administration’s efforts in a favorable light. What is clear, however, is that his release has helped to shine additional light upon the plight of those other hostages, as well as the harsh conditions of Iran’s prisons and specifically its wards for political detainees.
Zakka’s arrest took place in 2015, as he was attempting to leave the country after attending a business conference upon the invitation of an official in the administration of President Hassan Rouhani. His comments to the press have confirmed that the arresting agents identified themselves as members of the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This same group has been credited with the vast majority of the latest arrests of dual nationals, as well as with much of the crackdown on dissent that has escalated throughout the country, apparently as part of an effort to forestall expectations of reform under the Rouhani presidency.
Torture by the IRGC and other authorities has been a common feature of that crackdown, and Zakka was quick to confirm that it was a feature of his particular case as well. He was reportedly moved to tears by the recollection of his ordeal, which included physical torture in the aftermath of his arrest and long-term psychological torture throughout his more than four years of detention. Of his detention in Evin Prison, Zakka said “you will never see anyplace so horrible,” before lamenting that fellow dual nationals will remain subject to those conditions, for indeterminate lengths of time.
Prior to the commutation, Zakka’s sentence was meant to extend for 10 years, on the basis of vaguely defined national security charges like cooperating with hostile foreign governments. This exactly matches the sentence given to most of the US citizens who are known to be held in Iranian prisoners today, and whom Zakka either encountered or actually shared a cell with during his time there. The New York Times quoted him as saying that his final two years had been spent alongside Xiyue Wang, the Princeton graduate student who was accused of distributing sensitive documents after arranging to travel to Iran for library research into 19th century Persian political history.
That same cell was reportedly also shared with dozens of other inmates, leaving each person only an amount of space equivalent to that of “a coffin.” The Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi was apparently detained in an adjacent cell, while his elderly father Baquer was held on a different floor of the facility. Zakka also reported encountering Iranain-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, before she was taken to the woman’s ward to serve her five-year sentence for allegedly plotting the “soft overthrow” of Iran’s clerical regime.
In April, during a speech at the Asia Society in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif cited Zaghari-Ratcliffe by name while discussing the possibility of granting freedom to Western nationals in exchange for the release of Iranian citizens who are in prison or under arrest abroad for crimes such as the violation of US sanctions. The comments were widely viewed as further evidence that the Iranian regime is holding these people not on the basis of actual suspicions of criminal activity but in order to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.
Furthermore, Zarif later backpedaled his specific reference to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, insisting that her case was a separate issue. This may reflect Tehran’s expectation of settlement for a decades-old debt owed to the country by the United Kingdom, before the regime will consider releasing British nationals. In January 2016, when four American detainees were released in a prisoner swap with the US, the Obama administration was widely criticized for simultaneously sending 700 million dollars in cash to the Islamic Republic as “ransom,” although the sum was ostensibly a partial repayment for a similar debt.
It is unlikely that the current White House, which has steadily increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime, would consider similar measures. This is no doubt part of the reason why that regime has largely rejected the prospect of direct negotiations, leading to a situation in which Zakka’s release was mediated at least in part by Hezbollah supporters and so yielded no “wider deal” regarding Western-affiliated hostages.
Advocates for those hostages may have varying reactions to the Trump administration’s strategy, but several of them have responded favorably to Zakka’s release and its potential to focus additional energy on the efforts to secure freedom for others. At the same time, the former prisoner’s public commentary is yet another testimonial regarding the Iranian regime’s systematic abuses of human rights, as well as its other malign behaviors.
The family of Robert Levinson, an American citizen and former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 took note of Zakka’s references to rumors regarding his presence somewhere in the Iranian prison system. Iran has continually denied knowing where he is, but the family says that Zakka’s statement “further confirms that Iranian authorities kidnapped our father, continuously lied about it, denied him every basic universal human right, and have been getting away with it for more than 12 years.”