The US government on Monday accused two Iranian intelligence officials of being behind the mysterious 2007 disappearance and probable death of former FBI agent Robert Levinson.
The announcement, accompanied by sanctions against the men, comes in the waning days of the Trump administration and adds pressure on Iran before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
“We know how senior Iranian officials sanctioned Mr. Levinson’s abduction and detention. The regime also took deliberate actions to obfuscate the responsibility through an extensive disinformation campaign. Iranian leaders have lied over and over again,” a senior US official told reporters.
US officials said on a press call that the Biden administration must work to free Americans in Iran as part of any new nuclear deal — unlike the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump scrapped as toothless.
Levinson, who would be 72, probably died in Iranian detention but the US doesn’t know for sure, officials told reporters.
The two Iranian men, Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, work for the Ministry of Intelligence and allegedly ordered Levinson’s detention with involvement from senior members of the theocratic government.
Levinson’s nearly 14-year disappearance has long been the subject of intrigue as his family demands answers.
Whether Levinson was working for the CIA when he visited Kish Island in the Persian Gulf is a matter of dispute.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement, “The government of Iran pledged to provide assistance in bringing Bob Levinson home, but it has never followed through. 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 said the new sanctions mean that “[a]ll property and interests in property of these persons that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported” and that US citizens aren’t able to work with the men.
A US official acknowledged the men likely don’t have assets in the US, but said action by institutions in other countries that comply with US sanctions to avoid their own liability could be significant.
“There are secondary sanctions implications for any of their external dealings outside of Iran. It is one part of a pressure campaign,” she said.
White House Press Secretary Kaylegh McEnany said, “With this announcement, the United States Government is initiating the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable for the abduction of Robert Levinson—the longest ever held American hostage. The United States will relentlessly pursue all others involved as the investigation continues.
“Since the beginning of this Administration, President Trump has made it clear that Iran will be held accountable for its use of detention and hostage taking as a tool of “diplomacy” and that the United States will no longer accept Iranian excuses for what we know they have done to Mr. Levinson.”
It’s unclear when US officials acquired intelligence on the individuals behind the alleged abduction. US officials also told reporters they didn’t know the motive.
One official told reporters, “I can’t get into their heads and figure out why they would do this. You know, logic would suggest the desire to seize and question someone who spent his career in law enforcement in the United States.”
Another official called on Biden’s negotiators to keep in mind that other Americans are jailed in Iran, including dual citizens.
“There should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again that doesn’t free Americans who are unjustly detained in that country,” he said. “We all expect some negotiation next year. That negotiation must include the return home of all the Americans unjustly detained in that country.”