The United States on Monday for the first time accused Iran of direct involvement in the “probable death” of former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who vanished 13 years ago, and imposed sanctions on two intelligence agents.
Releasing the finding a month before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Donald Trump’s administration urged his successor to prioritize the release of at least three Americans in Iranian custody as part of an expected resumption of diplomacy.
“The government of Iran pledged to provide assistance in bringing Bob Levinson home, but it has never followed through,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement.
“The truth is that Iranian intelligence officers — with the approval of senior Iranian officials — were involved in Bob’s abduction and detention.”
The Treasury Department announced that it was imposing sanctions on two Iranians identified as intelligence agents, Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, saying they “were involved in the abduction, detention and probable death of Mr. Levinson.”
The sanctions in themselves were largely symbolic as Iranian agents were unlikely to have bank accounts in the United States, although the move will impede their international movements.
A senior US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, called on the incoming Biden administration to address the question of missing Americans.
“There should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again that doesn’t free the Americans who are unjustly detained in that country,” the official said, saying that Iran’s clerical regime “is 41 years old and has a 41-year-old record of hostage-taking.”
Trump has imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, including trying to stop all of its oil exports, and exited a 2015 agreement negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama under which Iran dramatically scaled back its nuclear program.
Upon sealing of the accord, Iran agreed to free four U.S. citizens in its custody. The deal outraged members of Trump’s Republican Party because Obama also authorized the release of frozen Iranian assets.
– Mysterious case –
Levinson, who disappeared when George W. Bush was president and would have turned 72 this year, was one of the most mysterious cases of Americans going missing in the arch-adversary.
The father of seven vanished in March 2007 in Kish, an island that has more lenient visa rules than the rest of Iran, and was said to have been investigating cigarette counterfeiting.
But The Washington Post reported in 2013 that Levinson, who had retired from the FBI, was working for the CIA and had gone on a rogue mission aimed at gathering intelligence on Iran.
It said at the time that the CIA paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s wife Christine, accepting responsibility for his disappearance.
Iranian officials have repeatedly said they had no information on Levinson.
In 2010, a videotape emerged of a haggard, bearded Levinson wearing an orange jumpsuit of the sort worn by prisoners being detained indefinitely at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — raising speculation, later downplayed by US officials, that he was being held by extremists in Pakistan.
Trump in March told reporters that he had not accepted that Levinson was dead but noted that he had health problems.
The former agent’s family said it had been offered proof to convince them that Levinson was dead.
The senior U.S. official said that involvement in Levinson’s death was “well known at very high levels of the Iranian government” but declined to describe any evidence or to provide details on how he apparently died.
“I can’t get into their heads and figure out why they would do this,” the official said, but added: “Logic would suggest the desire to seize and question someone who spent his career in law enforcement in the United States.”
The U.S. announcement comes amid rising concern about human rights in Iran, which on Saturday executed Ruhollah Zam, who ran a social media channel popular during 2017 protests.
The opposition figure had been living in France but activists say he was abducted after traveling to Iraq.