One Year after His Release, Nizar Zakka Talks about Iran, Hezbollah, Amer Fakhoury and the Caesar Act

A year ago today, Tehran released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and U.S. permanent resi-dent, after being held for almost four years in Iranian jails. He talks to L’Orient-Le Jour about his detention and release as well as the main files he worked on during this past year.

Nizar Zakka during his brief speech at the Baabda Palace after his release from Iran on June 11, 2019. AFP File Pho-to/Anwar Amro

“Nothing is more beautiful than freedom!” Nizar Zakka said on June 11, 2019 at the presidential palace in Baabda, after his return from Iran, where he had been detained at Evin prison for three years, eight months and 24 days. A year later, Zakka, a Washington, D.C. resident and a U.S. Green Card holder, returned to the United States where he campaigned against Iranian influence. He has been a tireless advocate for detainees in Iranian prisons as well as for 622 Lebanese who disappeared in Syria, an ally of Iran.

“My view of the Iranian state has changed a lot since my detention. It is a malevolent, heart-less state. Iranian officials know that they are making a mistake and continue to do so without remorse,” Zakka said in an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour. He was arrested in September 2015 in Tehran which he was visiting to take part in a development conference upon an invitation by Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. “My abduction has come to tell the world that Iran is against openness. The Iranian authorities are afraid, thinking that by opening up to the world, they will no longer be able to control the people.”

The Visit of Two Lebanese …

The one thing that still sticks in his throat from his detention years was a visit to prison by “two Lebanese,” members of Hezbollah he doesn't know. “They told me they knew everything about me, and asked me about my involvement with ‘You Stink!’ (a civil movement born in the wake of Lebanon’s waste crisis in the summer of 2015),” he recalled. “Then, they told me that if I wanted to get out of prison, I had to commit to working with them and be filmed admitting whatever they want. It was very frustrating to see Lebanese not standing by me. What a shame!”

In 2016, Zakka was sentenced by the Iranian judiciary to 10 years in prison for providing “intel-ligence” services to Washington. “Even on the day of my return to Lebanon, I was asked, via (the director general of the General Security directorate) Abbas Ibrahim to sign a paper admit-ting that I am guilty. I refused.”

Many questions arose a year ago regarding the circumstances of his release. Iran said at the time that it was a “gift” to Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.“My release was an outstretched hand to the United States. Doing so through Lebanon was convenient for Iran so as not to show its submission to Washington. In fact, three months later, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings, when he was asked about Americans detained in Iran, (Iranian) President Hassan Rouhani made it clear that the ball was in the US court after my release.” A few days later, Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman convicted in the United States, was re-leased.

“No one deserves to go through what I went through,” Zakka said. That is why he embraced the cause of the detainees soon after his release and while he was director of programs at Peace-Tech, a center based in Washington DC. “All I have done in the last year is, on the one hand, to make sure that those who have been imprisoned in Evin prison will be able to regain their free-dom and, on the other hand, that what happened to me does not happen to anyone else.”

Zakka reunited the families of the abductees in Iran and created with them an alliance that was launched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2019. He thus revealed that he is in contact with Evin detainees despite threats from the Iranian authorities. The other cause close to his heart concerns the Lebanese who have disappeared after being held in Syrian prisons. “No mother deserves to die without knowing the fate of her son because the Lebanese state has not done its duty,” he said. Zakka’s own mother died while he was in his Iranian prison.

“The Caesar Act Saves The Diab Government”

For Zakka, the Caesar Act, which is due to come into force on June 17, will help disclose the fate of the Lebanese who have disappeared in Syria. “This law is intended to make sure that Leba-nese officials do not deal with the Syrian regime. Some parties are trying to present this law as being against Lebanon and Syria, but that is not the case at all,” added Zakka, who was consult-ed as a “witness” by the authors of the law contemplating new sanctions preventing normaliza-tion with Syria.

“We will use this law to ensure that any official who does not work to find out what happened to the disappeared is considered an accomplice of the Syrian regime,” he said. Sanctions under the Caesar Act can be suspended “if the Syrian government releases all political prisoners and grants full access to prisons for investigation by appropriate international organizations,” he added. According to Zakka, the main objective is not to deal with the Syrian regime. “Smuggling and business deals between Lebanese and Syrian officials who set up a mafia together must stop. Anyone involved in smuggling will be punished.”

The Caesar Act “saves the Lebanese government,” he said. “If Prime Minister Hassan Diab is under pressure to go to Syria, when he does not want to, now this law is an excuse for him not to go.”

“Hezbollah knew about” Amer Fakhoury's case

Zakka’s influence in legislative and political circles in Washington also allowed him to intervene in the case of Amer Fakhoury, a former high-ranking member of the now-defunct pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia. Accused of torturing prisoners at the SLA-run Khiam deten-tion center, Fakhoury was arrested and then released by the Lebanese judiciary before being exfiltrated last March from the US Embassy in Beirut to the United States.

Zakka revealed that US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who had taken up the case of Fakhoury (who holds US citizenship), consulted him on this issue. “In the United States, this issue had reached a very advanced point, so I had to explain to Lebanese politicians that this was not a joke. I ar-ranged meetings between them and Fakhoury’s lawyer, and I myself was in contact with minis-ters I know to explain that detaining Fakhoury could damage US-Lebanese relations."

According to Zakka, the Lebanese government at that time was almost considered in the United States to be a Hezbollah government. However, after Fakhoury’s release, US President Donald Trump thanked it. “It was a total change of tone and a successful step for Lebanon.” Nasrallah said at the time that his party was neither involved nor aware of a possible “deal” that allowed dropping charges against the former torturer. But Zakka said “Hezbollah knew about" this case.

Hezbollah and Iran Weakened

Hezbollah, Zakka said, has been “considerably weakened” due to the US sanctions and also be-cause Iran needs money. “Hezbollah has even become a burden on Iran. Its role in Syria has been reduced and the Russians no longer want its presence,” he said.“Hezbollah, which was a regional problem, will again become a Lebanese problem only. I hope it will be ready to accept that it is no longer a state within a state.”

As for Iran, it is “in the weakest position it has ever known.” That’s why before the US presiden-tial election, “the Iranians will try to make a deal with the United States,” Zakka said. “They say that in this way, Trump will be able to boast of having made a good deal, unlike his predeces-sor, Barack Obama who, according to Trump, made the worst agreement in history (on Iran’s nuclear program). I am sure that the two countries will ultimately reach an agreement. The United States does not necessarily want regime change in Iran, but it does want Iran to be un-der its wing. This is important at the geopolitical level because today there is a risk of connect-ing China to the Mediterranean, through Afghanistan and Iran. The Iran-US agreement can happen at any time because there is no huge point of contention between the two countries – other than Hezbollah,” he added.“What we are seeing now is that Iran is trying by all means to open channels of communication with Washington.”

The proof to this was the release of former US serviceman Michael White by Iran last week. “White is sick and was considered vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. The Iranians did not want to take responsibility if something happened to him. That is why they handed him over to the Swiss,” he added. “Three months ago, the Iranian foreign ministry contacted the Swiss am-bassador in Tehran (who represents US interests in Iran) to inform him of Iran’s wish to release White. He spent three months at the embassy before returning to the United States.”

(This interview was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 11th of June)

“Nothing is more beautiful than freedom!” Nizar Zakka said on June 11, 2019 at the presidential palace in Baabda, after his return from Iran, where he had been detained at Evin prison for three years, eight months and 24 days. A year later, Zakka, a Washington, D.C. resident and a U.S. Green Card holder, returned to the United States where he campaigned against Iranian influence. He has been...