Iranian state media on Tuesday claimed that a Washington-based Lebanese citizen missing in Tehran since September is actually an American spy now in the custody of authorities.
However, those who know Nizar Zakka — who holds permanent-resident status in the United States — said an image of him in army-style fatigues shown on Iranian state media came from him recently taking part in a homecoming parade as an alumnus of his military high school in Georgia.
Through his lawyer, the Zakka family said they were “shocked by these false accusations,” and stressed that he has no “relation with any military, security institution or secret services whatsoever.”
The report is the first official word in Iran about Zakka since his disappearance. It comes as four Americans are known to be held by Iranian authorities after Iran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.
Jim Benson, president of Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, said the station identified the wrong man in the image as Zakka.
“He’s a good and decent man. There’s nothing subversive about him,” Benson told The Associated Press. “We’re terribly worried about him and concerned about how his family is taking all of this.”
Zakka disappeared Sept. 18 while visiting Tehran for a state-sponsored conference, according to a statement from the Washington-based group IJMA3-USA, which advocates for Internet freedom across the Middle East. Zakka was last seen leaving his hotel in a taxi for the airport to fly to Beirut, but he never boarded his flight, according to a statement last week signed by Lebanese lawyer Antoine Abou Dib.
In their statement, the Zakka family urged Lebanese authorities “to work seriously on determining the whereabouts of Mr. Zakka and bring him safely back to his country Lebanon.” In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said officials were aware of Zakka’s case. However, “U.S. lawful permanent residents are not U.S. passport holders and would travel on the passport of their nationality,” she said. “Consular assistance would be provided by the country of the individual’s nationality.”
Lebanese officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
The Iranian report claimed Zakka had “deep links” with U.S. intelligence services and its military.
Zakka’s reported arrest comes as hard-liners in Iran remain opposed to a detente with the U.S. in the wake of the nuclear deal.
That agreement reached earlier this year promises the lifting of crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.
There also may be another plan: in August, Iranian media began quoting officials discussing the possibility of swapping Americans detained in Iran for 19 Iranians held in the United States.
It’s unclear, however, whether that’s been seriously discussed between Iranian and U.S. officials.