Nizar Zakka: Biden's deal risks placing $1bn price tag on Iran's hostages

Businessman spent four years imprisoned in Iran after being arrested following a tech event in Tehran

Nizar Zakka, a former prisoner in Iran, said President Joe Biden's $6 billion deal to release five US citizens from Tehran could damage future hostage negotiations. Photo: Nizar Zakka
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US President Joe Biden’s $6 billion prisoner swap deal with Iran risks complicating future hostage negotiations with Tehran and raising the regime's expected price for detainees, a former prisoner has warned.

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American businessman with permanent US residency, spent four years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on espionage charges until his release in 2019.

The 56 year old told The National there would inevitably be a drawback to the Qatar-mediated agreement struck by Washington and Tehran.

The pact, which secured the release of five Americans detained by Iran, included a waiver to allow the transfer of billions of dollars of frozen Iranian oil revenue held in South Korea.

The value of cash which has been moved to accounts in Doha could be anywhere between $6 billion and $7 billion (£4.8 billion-£5.6 billion), depending on exchange rates.

Billion dollar price tag

The sheer sum of money involved could have a detrimental effect on any future hostage discussions between western governments and Iran, Mr Zakka said.

He predicted $1.2 billion could become the “going rate” for Iran’s foreign hostages.

“It’s going to damage future releases,” he said.

“The unfrozen assets are such a big amount it will be hard to influence any future negotiations that hostages will be released for anything less than $1.2 billion.

“This is something of concern.”

He also dismissed US assurances that the released assets would be used by Iran solely for humanitarian purposes. It would be relatively easy for the government to use the funds to purchase medicine only to sell it on the black market and use the cash for illicit purposes, he said.

“They can get the cash for the goods and give it to Hezbollah,” he warned.

However, the father of three was keen to stress he supported the US deal in principle because it guaranteed the freedom of people who were in a situation he knows all too well.

“For me I believe the hostages spent a long time in prison and they needed to get back home,” he said.

“The government had a long time to find a way to release them. In the end they found a way to bring them back. That’s my opinion.

“We are always happy to see hostages released but when the deal is over we have some questions if we feel the process has not been transparent. We saw that some people were released and some were left behind.”

The group which landed in the US this week included businessman Siamak Namazi, wildlife conservationist Morad Tahbaz and venture capitalist Emad Sharqi.

The two other US prisoners involved in the swap have not been publicly identified. All are Iranian-Americans.

Jamshid Sharmahd, a US resident who is on death row in Iran, was not included in the deal. His daughter Gazelle Sharmahd told The National her father had been “left behind to die”.

Shahab Dalili, another US resident imprisoned in Iran, was also side-lined in negotiations. Anoosheh Ashoori, a former British hostage in Iran who shared a cell with Mr Dalili, told The National there was “great disappointment” when he found out his friend had been ignored.

Iran's fears for tech freedom

Born and raised in Beirut, Mr Zakka moved with his family to the US as a teenager and settled in Washington DC.

He lives in the city with his wife and three sons and serves as president of Hostage Aid Worldwide, a non-profit group that lobbies for the released of hostages around the globe.

In September 2015, he was invited by the Iranian regime to speak at a tech conference in Tehran in his role as vice chairman of the World Innovation Technology and Services Alliance and head of its global public policy.

His invitation did not seem out of the ordinary – he was well-placed in the industry and was involved in organisations that helped forward tech industries in Arab nations.

But on the last day of his trip he was abducted by the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and taken to Evin prison, shortly after the 2015 nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – had been struck with Iran.

“The JCPOA had been signed and it was a time of openness,” he remembered. “Businesses were excited about [potentially] going to Iran. Microsoft, Intel, everybody was planning to go. I think my arrest was a message by the IRGC to the world that ‘we are not open’.

“They were saying very clearly that they wanted to do a nuclear deal but they didn’t want openness and tech freedom. They knew that this would bring about the end of the regime.”

Mr Zakka was detained in the men’s wing of the same unit where British-Iranian hostage Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was kept, and shared a room with Mr Ashoori.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori were released in March 2022 under a UK-brokered agreement worth £400 million.

Evin prison has become synonymous with human rights abuse and ill-treatment of political prisoners.

“It was hell,” Mr Zakka explained. “When I was first arrested I was kept in solitary confinement, blindfolded in a cell measuring two by four metres. All I had to sleep on was a carpet. They never gave me a reason for my arrest.”

He described a bizarre encounter with a judge who asked the businessman if he could offer forgiveness to the IRGC before giving him a false promise of freedom.

“I went to the judge and he said ‘are you going to forgive us, we are going to release you’. He hugged and kissed me,” he recalled.

But the signs of hope turned to doom soon after, when Mr Zakka was sentenced to 10 years in jail over spying allegations.

“The whole thing was just a joke,” he said of the charges, which he denied.

In June 2019, Mr Zakka had his long-awaited “wonderful” moment of walking free from Evin and flying back to the US to be reunited with his family.

The regime set him free as a “goodwill gesture”, he said.

At the time, western sources familiar with the case suggested Tehran had been hoping to use the move as an opening to talks with Washington.

“It was a glory,” Mr Zakka said.

“They were trying to say that I was a criminal.

I just wanted to tell the world that [the IRGC] could not do anything to me.

"I’m still the same person. I’m an innocent man and I believe in freedom.”

Updated: September 22, 2023, 7:06 AM