WASHINGTON (AP) - Four years after a retired FBI agent
mysteriously vanished inside Iran, U.S. officials have received
proof he is alive, a remarkable development that has dramatically
intensified secret negotiations to bring him home, The Associated
Press has learned.
The U.S. had lacked reliable information about whether Robert
Levinson was alive or dead since he disappeared in March 2007 from
the Iranian island of Kish. It remains unclear who exactly is
holding Levinson or where he is, but the proof that he is alive is
a rare hopeful sign in a case that had seemingly gone cold.
Iran has repeatedly said it has no information about Levinson,
but U.S. diplomats and investigators have long said they believed
he was taken by Iranian government agents.
As years passed, many in the U.S. government believed the
63-year-old with diabetes and high blood pressure might have died.
But late last year, Levinson's family received proof that he was
alive. Investigators confirmed its authenticity and that it was
recent, current and former officials said. Officials say they
believe he is still alive.
The AP has known about the proof since shortly after it arrived
but delayed reporting it because officials said any publicity would
jeopardize the ability to get Levinson home. The government
announced Thursday afternoon that there were signs he was alive, so
the AP published its story.
The AP is not disclosing the nature of the proof because
officials believe that would hurt efforts to free him.
The current and former officials who discussed the matter and
the pending announcement insisted on anonymity because the issue is
Next Wednesday will mark the fourth anniversary of Levinson's
disappearance. With proof that he is alive, the case becomes one of
the longer international hostage situations involving U.S.
citizens. Levinson is unique, however, in that no one has publicly
acknowledged holding him.
The government's announcement said Levinson may be in southwest
Asia and renewed its calls for help from Iran. The statement was a
change in tone from what had been stalemated discussions. The U.S.
has previously expressed deep frustration over what it said was
Iran's lack of cooperation.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been circumspect about
what his country knows about Levinson. In the course of a single
interview, he has said he had no information, has offered to help
and then has accused the FBI of withholding information about why
Levinson was in Iran.
Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998 and became a private
investigator. He was investigating cigarette smuggling in early
2007 and his family has said that investigation took him to Iran.
Kish is a popular resort area and a hotbed of smuggling and
organized crime. It is also a free trade zone, meaning U.S.
citizens do not need a visa to travel there.
Authorities don't know why the evidence that Levinson was alive
surfaced now, after years of silence. But it has touched off the
most hopeful round of diplomacy since he disappeared.
Iran shares borders with the southwest Asian countries of
Pakistan and Afghanistan, raising the possibility that Levinson was
shuttled into one of those countries. Both border crossings are
known smuggling routes. The route into Pakistan leads into a
lawless tribal region that's home to insurgents, terrorist groups
and criminal organizations.
Levinson disappeared after a meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, an
American fugitive wanted for the assassination of a former Iranian
diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Salahuddin has said he last saw
Levinson being questioned by Iranian officials. Levinson's
distinctive signature was used to check out of his hotel, but he
never made it to the airport.
Over the years, stories have trickled in from witnesses claiming
to have evidence about Levinson's whereabouts. But like so much
about Iran, the U.S. was never able to verify those accounts.
An Iranian defector now living in the United States, Reza
Kahlili, told the AP that Levinson was picked up by the Quds Force,
a unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Kahlili said he was told by
sources inside Iran that Levinson was investigating money
laundering and discovered a link between the Russian mob and the
Kahlili said Levinson was taken to a safe house in Tehran but he
does not know what happened to him. A former FBI official said the
U.S. was aware of that account and, though he described Kahlili as
credible, the U.S. could never confirm his story.
In 2009, an Iranian defector told U.S. authorities that, while
imprisoned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, he saw the name "B.
Levinson" scrawled on the door frame of his cell. That account was
included in a diplomatic memorandum obtained by WikiLeaks and
published last month. Former officials have raised doubts about the
defector, however, and when the AP located him in Europe in early
January, he said he never saw Levinson's name.
The State Department has repeatedly called on Iran to provide
more information about Levinson. U.S. diplomats have also asked
foreign leaders to intervene. Even the Vatican was enlisted, but in
2008 the Iranian government chastised the pope's ambassador to
Tehran, saying the Vatican had no business asking about the case,
according to State Department documents.
In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a
fresh diplomatic push. At a United Nations conference at The Hague
that year, Clinton personally passed a note to Iranian officials,
urging them to help find Levinson.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)