A prominent global communications technology expert has gone missing after participating in a conference in Tehran, IranWire has learned.
Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese information and communications technology (ICT) expert, disappeared on September 18 after attending a conference on entrepreneurship and employment at the Second International Conference & Exhibition on Women in Sustainable Development in Tehran. President Rouhani’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi invited Zakka to the four-day conference, where he delivered a speech about the role of ICT in empowering women on September 18 after arriving in Iran on September 11. Zakka also took part in round-table discussions at the meeting, which was attended by high-level Iranian ministry officials. Minsiter of Industry and Mines Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, Minister of Agriculture Mahmood Hojati, and Ministry of Labour, Welfare and Social Affairs Ali Rabeii were among the attendees and speakers at the conference.
On September 18, Zakka left his hotel for the airport by taxi, planning to travel back to Beirut. He did not arrive back in his home country. His family has not received any information as to his whereabouts. Zakka heads up the Arab Information and Communications Technology Organization (IJMA3), which has appealed to Lebanese foreign affairs and embassy officials, as well as the Iranian authorities, to confirm Zakka’s whereabouts and offer reassurance that he will be allowed to travel back to his home in Lebanon.
IJMA3 is a group of ICT organizations working on economic development, public policy, and educational initiatives in the Middle East. It also supports civil society in the region. Zakka is well known in the Middle East and in the ICT sector for both his IT policy experience and his expertise in the role communications technology plays in economic growth.
The Arrest of Siamak Namazi and Talks of Prisoner Swaps
The announcement of Zakka’s disappearance follows the arrests of two executives who had traveled to Iran to explore business opportunities. On October 15, security agents arrested Siamak Namazi, the Iranian-American director of the strategic planning office of the Crescent Oil Company, which has its headquarters in the United Arab Emirates. At the time of his arrest, agents ransacked Namazi's family’s home and confiscated personal items. Prior to this, around the same time as Zakka’s arrest, authorities detained a Europe-based Iranian businessman. Soon after his arrest, friends and business colleagues reported that they had received phishing emails from his private account.
News of Zakka's disappearance also coincided with comments from the government regarding the cases of three Iranian-Americans currently held in Iran prisons, Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian and Saeed Abedini. Both the president and Foreign Minister Javad Mohammad Zarif hinted to the media about a possible prisoner swap, which would secure the freedom of the dual nationals for the release of individuals held in US custody after being found guilty of violating sanctions regulations. Iranian officials have yet to comment on the disappearance of Nizar Zakka or the arrest of Siamak Namazi.
On August 1, authorities also arrested Iranian internet entrepreneur Arash Zad at Tehran’s Khomeini International Airport as he was due to fly to Istanbul, where he currently lives.
Nizar Zakka has traveled to Iran for business on previous occasions. In 2010, he attended the sixteenth ALCOMP international exhibition in Tehran, where he established contacts with Iran’s scientific community. In February 2014, Zakka sat on the jury of the Innovation Challenge Prize competition, which recognizes achievements in IT. He also took part in the ICT Persian Week conference in August 2014. The Rouhani administration initiated and hosted the conference.
In April 2013, Vatan-e Emruz, a hardliner newspaper run by Member of Parliament Mehrdad Bazpash, reported that Zakka was one of the founders of the Iranian International Directors’ Association, a group that had collaborated in a security project, Pol. Some Iranian authorities had identified Pol as a front for an undercover US-led operation to infiltrate Iranian politics and high-level business networks.
Vatan-e Emruz has also reported that the businessman arrested recently, Siamak Namazi, had supported the Green Movement protests that followed the presidential election of 2009.
Zakka’s disappearance comes at a time when the Rouhani administration seeks to boost Iran's economy and forge links with international business partners. Following his appearance at the UN in September, President Rouhani addressed a group of Iranian-Americans in New York, urging them to invest in Iranian business. Vice President Molaverdi has championed the role women will play in the process of sustainable development and business innovation in Iran and officially announced the international conference in early August.
The Crescent Petroleum Controversy
In September, US news outlet the Daily Beast published an article on the political influence of Siamak Namazi’s family in the United States, citing them as one of the key lobby groups that pushed for the nuclear deal to be reached, and outlining the significant financial gains the family stands to make as sanctions are lifted and the Iranian market is opened up to the international arena. The family manage the Atieh Bahar company, which has offered investment advice and consultation to non-Iranians interested in investing in Iranian markets, including its oil industries.
Vatan-e Emruz also reported on the family’s activities, and in particular on Siamak Namazi’s involvement with the Crescent Petroleum company. “The Crescent Petroleum company, after its file was referred to the international tribunal, employed Siamak Namazi as an experienced manager because of his vast network of contacts in the oil ministry and the Iranian government,” it reported in January 2014. The article also said that Namazi had been hired to approach Iranian officials on behalf of the company, and that the company had offered gifts, including diamonds, to oil ministry officials in 2007. The company, the Vatan-e Emruz article said, had “no reservations” about paying bribes in order to reach a good deal in the Iranian petroleum market deal on behalf of the UAE royal family. “The selection of Siamak Namazi shows not only the wisdom of UAE officials,” the article said, acknowledging Namazi’s influence and stature, “it also shows the rise of Namazi-like elements in Iranian oil industries. Shall we wait for more cases like this, such as in Statoil or Total?”
The case of Crescent Petroleum has huge economi and political implications in Iran because it involves a number of high profile figures, including Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was recently jailed on corruption charges.
The Crescent Petroleum controversy almost certainly has something to do with Siamak Namazi’s recent arrest, as it has commanded huge media attention and implicated some of Iran’s most powerful players. Recent warnings from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei about the dangerous influence of the West and plots to infiltrate the Iranian political arena make for a hostile climate for any foreign business wanting to pursue Iranian markets — and certainly for those who have been accused of using tactics that undermine the Islamic Republic, whether during or after the nuclear negotiations.
But reasons for the disappearance, or arrest, of Nizar Zakka are less clear, and are as yet unknown.