By Edward Carney
It was reported on Wednesday that Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent resident of the United States who has been held hostage in Iran since 2015, is scheduled to be released in the coming days. Zakka was one of several US nationals who were taken prisoner on false or unsubstantiated charges in the aftermath of that year’s Iran nuclear agreement, even though its implementation coincided with the release of four individuals who had previously been arrested and prosecuted. His pending release is arguably a rare sign of progress in discussions related to the Iranian regime’s penchant for hostage taking, although it may also be interpreted as a response to Zakka’s Lebanese nationality, rather than his American residency.
Zakka, an expert on information and communications technology, was in Iran at the time of his arrest to participate in a conference on the prospective role of women in sustainable development. Such topics are sensitive in the Islamic Republic, where hardline authorities have been engaged in a years-long effort to discourage women from entering the workplace and to otherwise push back against an emerging women’s rights movement. Yet Zakka’s participation in the conference was reportedly the result of a direct invitation by the country’s pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, leading to speculation that it was an incidence of entrapment as the regime sought to expand its roster of foreign hostages.
In September 2016, Zakka was sentenced to 10 years in prison – a term identical to that which was issued for fellow political prisoners Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Baquer, both of whom hold American citizenship. Later that year, another 10-year sentence was handed down for Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student whose pre-approved research into 19th century Persian history was deemed evidence of his spying on behalf of the United States.
In May, Wang’s wife Hua Qu published an editorial in the Washington Post concerning the plight of the Chinese-born US citizen. The article marked Wang’s “1,000th day unjustly imprisoned in Iran,” or “twice the time the American diplomats were held hostage [in the Tehran embassy] from 1979 to 1981.” This reference to the Iran hostage crisis underscores what many commentators have said while advocating for any or all of the foreign and dual nationals imprisoned in the Islamic Republic: that hostage-taking is a firmly established and formalized strategy for that government’s geopolitical negotiations.
In April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spoke publicly at the Asia Society in New York to suggest that the false imprisonment of US citizens could be resolved through an exchange for various Iranian nationals who are serving prison terms or are currently detained on behalf of the US for coordinated sanctions violations and other serious crimes. Zarif initially connected this offer to the case of the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, before quickly backpedaling and insisting that that was a separate issue. This led the Thomson Reuters Foundation employee’s British husband and other advocates to conclude that the regime was likely intent on holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe until the settlement of an outstanding debt that the United Kingdom apparently owes to Iran.
A similar debt was settled by the US in 2015 at precisely the same time as 21 Iranians were released from custody or had charges against them dropped by the US in exchange for the four US nationals then being held in Iran. The Obama administration arranged for the immediate delivery of 700 million dollars in cash as a partial repayment, leading to widespread accusations that the White House had effectively paid ransom money for the return of its citizens. The administration was also criticized for its apparent failure to compel the Iranians to disclose the location of a fifth American, Robert Levinson, who is believed to have been taken into custody by regime authorities in 2007. Yet Levinson’s family and supporters have demonstrated similar frustration with the Trump administration over a lack of progress in the case. And advocates for other remaining hostages have expressed much the same sentiment.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Switzerland for a three day visit, as part of a European tour that was expected to be largely focused on Iranian issues. The unusually long Swiss leg of the trip prompted some expectations that the White House was beginning to make a more concerted effort to secure the release of its citizens. The US has had no consular relations with the Islamic Republic since the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, and so diplomatic affairs including support for American citizens in Iran are handled by Switzerland.
Little concrete information has since emerged concerning discussions that might have taken place between Pompeo and Swiss officials regarding known or unknown US hostages. Tehran’s apparent agreement to release Nizar Zakka might have stood out as evidence of the administration’s efforts, but it has been reported that this development resulted from a direct request by Michel Aoun, the Prime Minister of Zakka’s original home country of Lebanon. And owing to Zakka’s Muslim background, the release has also been characterized as a merciful gesture marking the Eid holiday and the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
In fact, the International Business Times described one US State Department spokesperson as affirming that while the US welcome’s Zakka’s return from Iran to Lebanon, the incident is a matter for those two countries, and is only tangentially related to the United States. It remains to be seen what, if any effect the release will have on prospects for the actually citizens of the US and other Western countries who continue to languish in the notoriously harsh conditions of Iran’s political prison wards.
Without drawing any conclusion as to the underlying significance, the Associated Press reported that Zakka’s release “comes at a time of rising tension in the Middle East between the United States and Iran.” The same report noted that Aoun’s request likely carried particular weight because of his close connection to Hezbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary that has long depended on Iran for much of its funding. The AP gave no indication of what interest the Prime Minister of Hezbollah might have in securing the release of this particular individual, given his long-term residency within the despised United States. But other reports may offer some clue.
The Financial Times has highlighted the apparently serious budget crisis that the Lebanese militant organization is facing as a result of some Iranian foreign expenditures drying up in the face of growing, US-led economic pressure. In May of last year, President Trump announced withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, setting the stage for re-imposition of sanctions in August and November. Then, upon the one-year anniversary of that announcement, the administration ceased to provide waivers to leading importers of Iranian oil, tightening the vice more tightly.
Although the Financial Times concedes that it is difficult to trace the pathway of Iranian money from Tehran to various foreign proxies, the regime’s defense budget appears to have shrunk by about 28 percent and prompted Hezbollah and other groups to look for alternative sources of revenue. Traditionally, Hezbollah has relied on Iran for an estimated 700 million dollars per year, but in recent months it has been seen appealing to the Lebanese population for small donations while also lowering salaries and otherwise cutting corners.
Amidst this newfound dependency on the local constituency, it may be that both Hezbollah and its political allies are especially concerned with giving the impression that they are focused on improving the welfare of all Lebanese people. This message may be communicated, in part, by Aoun’s successful appeal for the release of Nizar Zakka. And at the same time, Tehran’s easy compliance may hint at the potential benefits of maintaining a close relationship with the Islamic Republic, even as its usually-dependable funding becomes more scare.