Iran Says It Will Release U.S. Resident Charged With Spying

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Iran will release a Lebanese citizen charged with spying for the United States on Monday, Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

The prisoner, Nizar Zakka, an information technology expert with American permanent residency, has been imprisoned in Iran for more than four years.

The announcement, after nearly a year of requests by top Lebanese officials for Mr. Zakka’s freedom, was billed in Iran and Lebanon as a gesture of good will from one nation to the other.

It came at a time of crackling tension between the United States and Iran. Though leaders of both countries have said they do not want war, aggressive rhetoric on both sides, escalating American economic and military pressure, and mysterious attacks on oil installations of American allies in the Persian Gulf have raised fears of an armed clash.

Fars, the Iranian news agency, said Mr. Zakka would be released out of respect for Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese military and political group that the United States considers a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is deeply intertwined with Iran, and is part of Lebanon’s coalition government.

Mr. Zakka was “freed and extradited, thanks to Nasrallah’s mediation and the respect Tehran pays to him,” the news agency said.

Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s internal security agency, went to Tehran to meet with Mr. Zakka on Monday, his office said in a statement.

Jason Poblete, a lawyer in Alexandria, Va., who represents Mr. Zakka and has pressed for his release, was cautious about the Fars report.

“After almost four years, Mr. Zakka looks forward to, hopefully soon, rejoining his family & friends,” Mr. Poblete said in an emailed comment.

Though Mr. Zakka’s son met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this year to urge him to help secure his father’s release, American officials have not acknowledged any efforts on Mr. Zakka’s behalf by the United States. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, offered this year to discuss prisoner releases with the United States — a move interpreted as a signal that the Iranians wanted to pursue diplomacy — but American officials did not take him up on the offer.

Mr. Zakka was arrested in September 2015 on his way to the airport in Tehran, where he had attended a conference, according to advocates for Mr. Zakka, even though he had received an official invitation from Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs to speak at the event. He was initially denied access to a lawyer or visits from Lebanese government representatives.

Iranian state TV reported that he was suspected of having “deep links” to American intelligence, and he was convicted of spying, sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 2016 and ordered to pay a $4.2 million fine.

At the time of his arrest, he was the secretary-general of IJMA3, an association for information technology organizations across the Middle East and North Africa. The association had received funding from the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and international aid groups to help develop the tech industry around the region, Mr. Zakka’s advocates said.

For years, there was little movement on his case. But, under pressure from his family, Lebanese officials announced last year that they were in talks with Iran concerning Mr. Zakka’s release. Mr. Ibrahim, the head of the Lebanese security agency, visited him in prison last August.

Born in northern Lebanon, Mr. Zakka moved to the United States as a teenager to escape Lebanon’s civil war, going to school in Georgia and then graduating from the University of Texas in 1990. He worked in information technology in Texas and the Middle East before helping found IJMA3. He acquired American permanent residency in 2013, and lived in Washington before his arrest.

As evidence of his alleged ties to American intelligence agencies, Iranian state media outlets had consistently pointed to a photo of Mr. Zakka in what looks like a military uniform. But his friends and family said the photo was from an event at his high school, the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga.

Source: NYT

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