Nizar Zakka: Iran frees US resident imprisoned for espionage

Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident and Lebanese businessman, said his incarceration in Iran was a case of "kidnapping." Although the US sent well-wishes, it was Lebanon that secured his release.

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that they had released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman arrested in Tehran in 2015 after being accused of spying for the US. Zakka, who is a permanent US resident based in Washington, arrived in Beirut on Tuesday evening.

Although Zakka's release comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran, Zakka told reporters in Beirut that his release had been secured "from beginning to end" by Lebanese authorities, and that it was not part of a wider deal with the US.

Zakka went on to say, however, that his release could serve to deescalate tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Read more: Opinion: In Tehran, diplomatic hope dies last

Politics | 11.06.2019

On Tuesday, the White House said it was "thankful" for Zakka's release, but that the US wanted to see more of its citizens who are detained in Iran freed as well.

"The big question is that there's several others, and we want to see those people released as well," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

'I feel nothing'

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile in France. When a reporter asked him how he felt upon his return to Iran, Khomeini replied: "Nothing — I feel nothing." Some analysts interpreted his remarks as the Shiite leader's idea about embarking on a "divine mission" where emotions hardly mattered.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

The Shah ran out of time

Two months before Khomeini's return to Iran, an estimated six to nine million people took to the streets in the country's major cities. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, compared to the violent September 8, 1978, protests. The Shah regime, headed by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had realized that its time in power was over and that they could not stop Khomeini's return.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Even women rooted for Khomeini

The revolutionary mood was so intense in Tehran that even many women celebrated Khomeini's return, ignoring the fact that Khomeini had slammed Shah's measures for women's emancipation in exile. In 1963, the Shah of Iran granted women the right to vote.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

A spectacle of exuberance

In 1971, the Shah and his wife Farah Diba (seen in the picture) staged a lavish spectacle on the ancient site of Persepolis to mark the "2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy." Many heads of state attended the event. Khomeini, in his message from exile, condemned the monarchy as "cruel, evil and un-Islamic."

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Exile and death

Under pressure from the Islamic Revolution, the Shah (left) had left Iran on January 16, 1979. After spending time in several countries, he succumbed to cancer on July 27, 1980 in Cairo, Egypt.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Consolidating power

In the beginning, women's rights were not a major issue for the Islamic revolutionaries. They only imposed hardline Islam after consolidating their victory.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Soldiers join the revolution

Upon Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979, the military did not confront the protesters. On February 11, the army declared itself neutral. Despite that, the revolutionaries executed several generals in February and April.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

New government

Soon after his return, Khomeini declared the monarchy, the previous government and parliament illegal, and said he would appoint a government "because of the fact that this nation believes in me." According to Iran experts, it was not self-deception but reality.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

The liberal face of the revolution

Mehdi Bazargan, a scholar and pro-democracy activist, had campaigned against the Pahlavi dynasty, for which he had been incarcerated for several years. Khomeini appointed him as his first prime minister, although Bazargan was critical of him as well. Bazargan had called Khomeini a "turbaned Shah" after a meeting with the Ayatollah in Paris. He remained in office for only nine months.

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Occupation of the US Embassy

In November 1979, radical Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took the embassy staff hostage. The students were fearful of Shah's return to power with US help. Khomeini took advantage of the situation. He dismissed his opponents as "US allies."

Iran's Islamic Revolution 40 years on

Ali Khamenei – guardian of the revolution

In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was elected by the expert council to succeed Khomeini. Khamenei, to this date, has the ultimate power over all state institutions. Although the 79-year-old does not have the same charisma as his predecessor, he represents the policies of Iranian hardliners who refuse to reform the system and continue to persecute dissidents.

Kidnapped by invitation?

Zakka heads an industry consortium advocating the development of information and communications technology in the Middle East. He was detained in 2015 after traveling to Tehran on an official invitation to participate in a conference. Iranian media said Revolutionary Guard officers arrested Zakka for his alleged ties to US security services as he tried to depart the country. 

In 2016, Zakka was charged with espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He denied the charges, while Iranian media portrayed him as a spy.

Read more: Iranian court jails US-Iranians for 10 years for spying

"I went upon an official invitation to a country where I was kidnapped," said Zakka on Tuesday, adding that he was then subjected to "arbitrary detention and a show trial." 

Related Subjects

Zakka had been one of several prisoners with either dual nationality or links to the West held in Iran.

Lebanese officials had been requesting his release for years, and according to Iranian media, Zakka's freedom had finally been secured following a personal request by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. It remains unclear as to why Iran decided to act now. 

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