July 10, 2019
Iran’s release last month of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with US permanent residency, after four years in prison was meant as an opening for US-Iranian talks, according to three Western sources familiar with the issue.
The gesture, however, was not enough for Washington, which did not pursue it.
“It was a missed opportunity,” one US source said of Zakka’s June 11 release and the US decision not to pursue talks. “We should have explored whether there was something there.”
A second source — who is familiar with Iran’s thinking and spoke on condition of anonymity — said Iran freed Zakka as a signal it wanted to cool tensions that have fueled fears of a war, and described his release as “a goodwill gesture.”
“This was seen as a de-escalation step from their side, which obviously they expected to be somehow reciprocated from the American side,” said the second source, adding that the United States did not take up the overture.
A State Department spokesman declined to address whether Washington had missed an opportunity to engage with Iran after Zakka’s release, and said if Tehran wanted to reduce tensions it should free an American citizen.
“If Iran wants to reduce tensions and engage with the United States government, it should make a humanitarian gesture such as releasing one of the innocent American citizens it is holding hostage,” the spokesman told Reuters.
Zakka, a Washington-based information technology expert, was arrested in 2015 while attending a conference in Iran. His information technology company, IJMA3, is funded by private groups and governments, including the United States.
Held at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, Zakka staged at least six hunger strikes. He was visibly shaken when he arrived in Beirut late on June 11 accompanied by Lebanon’s General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who had gone to Iran to collect him.
Zakka later told the New York Times he believed his release was a conciliatory signal from Iran toward the United States.
His lawyer, Jason Poblete, represents other prisoners held in Iran and told Reuters he believes that Zakka’s release “remains an opportunity for others unlawfully detained in Iran.”