Iran has denied any knowledge of the fate or location of a former FBI agent whose disappearance while in the Islamic Republic 13 years ago is now being blamed by the United States on two Iranian security officials.
The Treasury Department announced Monday that it was placing sanctions on Mohammed Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, two individuals said to be Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security operatives involved in Robert Levinson’s abduction, detention and likely death, sometime after he left his Kish Island hotel in 2007.
“The abduction of Mr. Levinson in Iran is an outrageous example of the Iranian regime’s willingness to commit unjust acts,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in an accompanying press release. “The United States will always prioritize the safety and security of the American people and will continue to aggressively pursue those who played a role in Mr. Levinson’s detention and probable death.”
But Iran has always denied having any role in the circumstances that led Levinson to vanish years ago.
“We have consistently maintained that the Iranian government has no information on Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts,” Iranian mission to the United Nations spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi told Newsweek. “The investigations Iran has pursued did not reveal any information beyond his leaving the hotel in Kish Island.”
Referencing media reports that first emerged a decade ago in the Associated Press as to Levinson’s ties to the CIA, for which he was reportedly working in an unauthorized capacity, Miryousefi recommended journalists direct their questions to the U.S. government.
“Given that the U.S. has admitted that he was on a secret CIA mission to Iran,” Miryousefi said, “perhaps the media should look to the U.S. government for any further information.”
Prior to the sanctions announcement, senior administration officials discussed Levinson’s case in a call with reporters on Monday.
“These are the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable for the abduction of Mr. Levinson, the longest-held U.S. hostage ever,” one official said.
“This is the worst case of Iranian hostage-taking, abducting an American, holding him outside the judicial process for perpetuity, potentially killing him,” the official added. “No family should be subjected to this uncertainty.”
In a statement sent to Newsweek, Levinson’s family thanked those who organized the call for their ongoing work in trying to get to the bottom of what happened to the former FBI agent turned private investigator, though the family lamented that there would be little closure with Levinson believed dead.
“Robert Levinson will never come home to his family alive because of the cruel, cynical and inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities,” the Levinson family statement said. “Because of these men and others like them, our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved. This is just one step in a long road toward achieving justice for him, but it is an important one.”
Levinson’s family had been anonymously sent proof of life footage in 2010 and 2011, but they announced in March of this year that U.S. officials had informed them that Levinson had likely died at some point prior to this year.
“The U.S. government determined that all the evidence that we have to date likely points to Bob’s death while in captivity,” another senior administration official said during Monday’s call, “but we’re still continuing to work to see if we can get any more information and develop the necessary evidence.”
Officials on the call did not provide specifics as to any updates regarding Levinson’s case, nor as to what developments, if any, exactly prompted the latest round of sanctions, which join an expanding array of economic restrictions introduced under President Donald Trump since the unilateral U.S. exit of the 2015 nuclear deal.
A third senior administration official called for the inclusion of U.S. detainees in any upcoming discussions with Iran. The official predicted such diplomacy would take place next year as the Trump administration was set to soon hand over the White House to President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised to reenter the agreement reached with Iran and other major powers during his tenure as vice president to former President Barack Obama.
“We all expect a negotiation next year, that negotiation must include a return home of all the Americans unjustly detained in that country,” the official said.
Other U.S. citizens held in Iran include Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi arrested in 2015, his father and former civil servant Baquer Namazi, arrested in 2016, and dual Iranian-British citizen Morad Tahbaz, a businessman and conversationist arrested in 2018. All are accused of collaborating with a foreign government.
The Trump administration’s tenure has been marked by a spike in tensions with longtime U.S. foe Iran, especially with the imposition of increasingly tight sanctions against the Islamic Republic and the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani in January. In another high-profile assassination, leading Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was slain late last month.
No group has taken credit for the latest killing, but Iranian authorities have blamed archfoe Israel, which has declined to comment on the matter, and other enemy forces in the region.