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Iran frees imprisoned US resident as diplomacy gathers steam

Ladane Nasseri, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Iran freed a U.S. resident imprisoned on espionage charges, a possible overture toward the Trump administration as international efforts to end a bellicose standoff between Washington and Tehran gather momentum.

"After more than 1,350 days in captivity in Iran, we have received excellent news: Mr. Nizar Zakka is a free man," his Virginia-based lawyer, Jason Poblete, said in a message on Tuesday. He "looks forward to reuniting with family and friends."

Zakka, a Lebanese national, was released into the custody of a Lebanese security chief and was flown to Beirut, according to a tweet from the security agency. Iran's state-run Fars news agency had reported earlier that he would be handed over to Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, an Iranian ally.

Zakka, a technology expert, was arrested on a trip to Iran. He was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison after Iranian authorities accused him of spying. His family rejected the charges and had campaigned for his freedom.

Zakka's release comes during a week of high-stakes diplomacy in Tehran, intended to salvage the international nuclear deal with Iran and reduce tensions that followed the Trump administration's decision to abandon the accord and tighten sanctions.

Following a one-day trip by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to the Iranian capital, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to arrive on Wednesday for consultations with top officials. It's unclear whether Zakka's fate had been on the agenda.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the U.S. was "thankful" for Zakka's release.

"There are several others and we want to see those people released as well," she said, declining to comment on whether the administration was involved in talks that led to his freedom.


President Donald Trump has shown support for Abe's efforts to play intermediary between Tehran and Washington. Kazuo Takahashi, professor of international politics at the Open University of Japan and an expert on Japan's policy toward Iran, said the premier may have been given a mandate by Trump.

"Maybe Mr. Trump has promised some relaxation of the sanctions against Iran or the exchange of prisoners -- with Americans kept by Iran and Iranians kept by the States," said Takahashi.

Several dual U.S. nationals are detained by Iranian authorities on accusation of spying. The U.S. holds some Iranians for allegedly violating American sanctions. During a trip to the U.S. in April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

(With assistance from Josh Wingrove and Jon Herskovitz.)

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