Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Iran's release of Lebanese prisoner Nizar Zakka 'was failed overture to US'

The gesture was not enough for Washington, which did not pursue it

Iran released Lebanese-American businessman Nizar Zakka on June 11, 2019. Reuters
Iran released Lebanese-American businessman Nizar Zakka on June 11, 2019. Reuters

Iran’s release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with US permanent residency, last month was meant as an opening for US-Tehran talks.

The gesture, however, was not enough for Washington, which did not pursue it, three Western sources familiar with the issue told Reuters.

“It was a missed opportunity,” one US source said of Mr Zakka’s June 11 release after four years in prison and Washington’s decision not to pursue talks. “We should have explored whether there was something there.”

A second source – who is familiar with Tehran’s thinking and spoke on condition of anonymity – said Iran freed Mr Zakka as a signal it wanted to cool tensions that have fuelled 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 US did not take up the overture.

A State Department spokesman declined to address whether Washington had missed an opportunity to engage with Iran after Mr 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.

Nizar Zakka, an information technology expert, was arrested in 2015 while attending a conference in Iran. Reuters
Nizar Zakka, an information technology expert, was arrested in 2015 while attending a conference in Iran. Reuters

Iranian officials declined to discuss whether it was an overture, or what concessions Tehran wants from Washington.

In the month since the release, already tense US-Iranian relations have taken several turns for the worse, including Iran’s downing of an American drone, economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader and the capture last week of an Iranian oil tanker by British forces.

The drone’s destruction brought US President Donald Trump to the brink of ordering the first overt military strike on Iranian targets since 1988.

Mr 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 that of the US.

Updated: July 10, 2019 01:13 PM

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