The New York Times
By BARRY MEIERPublished: April 12, 2009
By BARRY MEIERPublished: April 12, 2009
Two years after a former agent for the F.B.I. disappeared while on a trip to Iran, American diplomats and investigators are intensifying their efforts to resolve his case.
Two weeks ago, an Obama administration envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, gave a letter to Iranian officials requesting information about the missing former agent, Robert Levinson, and two Americans imprisoned in Iran. Over the past year, a small team of F.B.I. agents, aided by consultants and businessmen with contacts in Iran, has also been seeking information about him.
The efforts come at a delicate time in American-Iranian relations. The Obama administration is seeking greater engagement with Iran, even as the government there has announced that it will try one of the imprisoned Americans, Roxana Saberi, a freelance journalist, on espionage charges.
Mr. Levinson disappeared in March 2007 on Kish Island, a Persian Gulf resort that is also a smuggling hub. His family has said that the former agent, who has worked in recent years as a private investigator, went there in connection with a cigarette smuggling case.
On Kish, he met with another American, Dawud Salahuddin, who fled to Tehran in 1980 after killing an associate of the former shah of Iran in Maryland. Mr. Levinson was last seen checking out of a hotel on Kish and getting into a taxi to the airport.
Since that day, even the basic question of whether Mr. Levinson is alive remains unresolved.
One businessman who is assisting the F.B.I. in its inquiry said in a brief telephone interview that it was his understanding that Mr. Levinson was alive, a view that F.B.I. agents involved in the case share, said several people who had spoken with them. That businessman, like several other people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to disrupt efforts to resolve the case.
In a recent interview, a top F.B.I. official said the agency had received several unconfirmed reports of sightings of Mr. Levinson in Iran. But the official, Joseph Persichini Jr., said the inquiry had yet to produce evidence to prove that Mr. Levinson was alive. “Some of those reports were detailed and sound credible, and we need to resolve that,” said Mr. Persichini, the assistant director in charge of the F.B.I.’s Washington field office, which is conducting the investigation.
Some American lawmakers have said they believe that Mr. Levinson is being held in an Iranian prison. An expatriate Iranian businessman said his contacts in Iran had told him that Mr. Levinson was held for a time at a site near Tehran run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Government officials there have repeatedly said that they know nothing about Mr. Levinson. An official in the Iranian president’s office and a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry both refused to comment about the case on Saturday.
Because no group has said it is holding Mr. Levinson, some people familiar with his case have speculated that he may have died in captivity. But others believe that the silence surrounding his status could suggest that because of his F.B.I. background, his captors view him as a high-value chip in a possible prisoner swap.
“I am confident he is alive,” said David L. McGee, a lawyer in Pensacola, Fla., who represents the Levinson family.
Mr. Levinson, who turned 59 a day after his disappearance, lived in Coral Springs, Fla., 20 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. For his wife, Christine Levinson, and their seven children, ages 15 to 31, the past two years have been an excruciating ordeal. Their hopes have soared and then plummeted amid conflicting reports about progress in his case. Last year, Mrs. Levinson traveled to Kish to retrace her husband’s footsteps. She receives regular briefings from the F.B.I.
“They just keep telling me they keep hearing that he is doing well,” Mrs. Levinson said in a recent telephone interview. “I have always believed that he is alive and well and somewhere in Iran, and that has not changed.”
Mr. Levinson spent more than 20 years with the F.B.I. Before his retirement in 1998, he specialized in Russian organized crime cases. Most of his work as a private investigator involved product counterfeiting, though he also worked for human rights organizations.
It was an assignment for one such organization, Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates corruption in natural resource industries, that took Mr. Levinson to Dubai in March 2007. After spending several days there, he next flew to Kish for his meeting with Mr. Salahuddin.
Mr. Salahuddin’s involvement has added another mystery to the case. While he has been quoted in news reports as saying that the killing he carried out in 1980 was necessary to eliminate enemies of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, he has also criticized some of Iran’s recent leaders and once flirted with the possibility of surrendering and returning to the United States. Mr. Salahuddin did not respond to recent e-mail messages seeking comment.
Jeffrey Katz, the head of a London-based investigative firm for which Mr. Levinson did some work, said that he and other friends of the former agent believed that the F.B.I. was initially slow to devote sufficient resources to the case. An agency spokesman, John Jay Miller, disputed such suggestions.
The Levinson case has received more attention since President Obama’s election. Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has been urging the F.B.I. and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to make resolving Mr. Levinson’s case a priority.
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran