‘Complex’ deal to release Lebanese businessman after 4 years in Iran jail

Zakka arrived in Beirut on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Updated 12 June 2019

‘Complex’ deal to release Lebanese businessman after 4 years in Iran jail

  • Beirut denies man’s freedom is linked to talks over two prisoners in US ‘important to Iran’

BEIRUT: The release of a Lebanese businessman on Tuesday after nearly four years in an Iranian prison may be linked to “complex” talks over two Lebanese prisoners being held in the US, analysts have told Arab News.

Nizar Zakka, an information technology specialist who holds US residency, was detained in Tehran in 2015. Iranian media described him as a US spy and he was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined $4.2 million.

Zakka arrived in Beirut on Tuesday after Lebanon’s government secured his freedom. The circumstances of Zakka’s release were “complex,” Asaad Haidar, a Lebanese expert on Iran, told Arab News.

“This is a declaration of Iranian goodwill toward the Americans,” he said. “Zakka’s release is aimed at exchanging his freedom for the release of people who are being held by the US, including two Lebanese, Ali Kourani and Kassim Tajideen, who are important to Iran.”

Kourani, 34, a Lebanese American, is being prosecuted in a New York court on charges of supporting terrorism. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.

BACKGROUND

• Nizar Zakka, an information technology specialist who holds US residency, was detained in Tehran in 2015.

• Iranian media described him as a US spy and he was sentenced to 10 years in jail and fined $4.2 million.

Tajideen, 63, a Lebanese businessman from the southern town of Hanaouay, built a global network of food and property companies with his brothers. He was accused by Washington of financing terrorism, and arrested in Morocco in March 2017.

“Tajideen is essential to Iran and they want to move reopen his case because no one has mentioned him since his arrest,” Haidar said.

“It is important to monitor the outcome of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Tehran on Wednesday, and his meeting with Iranian officials.  These are real negotiations whose results will emerge later.”

Nevertheless, officials in Lebanon and Zakka himself denied on Tuesday that his release was linked to a swap deal.

“This was an initiative that began and ended in Lebanon, a national job. The results were positive and stopped many actions that would have affected the region,” Zakka said.

Sources at the presidential palace told Arab News Zakka’s release was the result of “an intervention by President Michel Aoun with the Iranian authorities. 

“He … summoned the Iranian ambassador and asked him to refer his request to President Hassan Rouhani, and he responded positively. Everything said and written outside this context is absolutely unfounded.”

Zakka arrived in Beirut on a private jet, along with Lebanon’s national security chief, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. 

“I do not make deals,” Ibrahim said. “But Tajideen is on my mind. I met him in prison in 2017 and this matter is not up.”


Security conference told of ‘Iranian menace’ to shipping in the Gulf

Updated 22 min 16 sec ago

Security conference told of ‘Iranian menace’ to shipping in the Gulf

  • “Aviation and maritime security are at the top of the policy agenda in the region,” says Bahraini FM
  • Pompeo warned of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program

MANAMA: Delegates from more than 60 countries including Saudi Arabia met in Bahrain on Monday to discuss maritime security after attacks on tankers in the Gulf and Saudi oil installations, widely blamed on Iran.

“Aviation and maritime security are at the top of the policy agenda in the region,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa told the conference. “We must take a collective stand ... to take the necessary steps to protect our nations from rogue states.”

In a message to delegates, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

“This meeting comes at a critical moment in history,” he said. “The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery, whether by air or sea, poses a serious threat to international peace and security.

“Together, we must all be committed to taking the necessary actions to stop countries that continue to pursue WMD at great risk to all of us.”

Countries taking part in the conference, including Israel, belong to the Maritime and Aviation Security Working Group, created in February during a Middle East conference in Warsaw.

“The meeting is an occasion to exchange views on how to deal with the Iranian menace and to guarantee freedom of navigation,” Bahrain’s foreign ministry said.

After the tanker attacks, the US formed a naval coalition to protect navigation. Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, joined in August, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE followed in September. The UK and Australia are the other main Western partners.