According to negotiators who tried to get former FBI investigator Robert Levinson released by Iran in 2011, the Iranians acknowledged he was in the country in October of that year.
The New York Times reported this on Friday, 22 January. The information contradicts Iran’s subsequent public claims that the regime doesn’t know where Levinson is, but fears he may have been abducted by a criminal group or tribal militia.
Levinson’s whereabouts came up during the recent prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran, concluded just as Obama lifted sanctions on Iran in response to the IAEA sign-off on Iran’s initial compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the so-called nuclear “deal.”
Levinson went missing while conducting investigative work on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. Iran has claimed for years to not know where he is, and made the same claim when the U.S. was negotiating last week’s release of four other Americans held prisoner by Iran. NYT noted this in the article on Friday:
Iranian leaders have long said that they knew nothing about the missing American, and United States officials have said that he may no longer be in Iran — or even still alive. Aside from a hostage video and photographs of him in an orange jumpsuit five years ago, there had been no public clues about his fate.
But it’s not really accurate to say that there’ve been no “public clues” about Levinson’s fate. Direct evidence dating to a time later than his date of disappearance in 2007 has indeed been minimal. The hostage video and photographs NYT refers to were sent to his family in late 2010 and early 2011.
Levinson did have a CIA connection
But the public got a big, and significant, update on Levinson’s case in late 2013, when AP reported that some amount of Levinson’s investigative work was in fact undertaken for the CIA, even if he wasn’t specifically under contract for the visit to Kish Island. (That particular detail is disputed.) Iranian allegations – made after his disappearance – that Levinson was working for the CIA were thus, for all intents and purposes, factual.
The AP story was based on information dug up by investigators for Congress, and was known to members of Congress as early as September 2007. It’s not a story pieced together by enterprising reporters from anonymous third-hand disclosures. It’s an account of what Congress learned within a year of Levinson’s disappearance.
The nature of Levinson’s work relationship with the CIA was problematic: an analytical group was making private contracts to have him investigate things (overseas, that being CIA’s investigative charter), because he had been a top-notch investigator for the DEA and FBI. Analysts aren’t supposed to contract investigations that way, within the CIA. The principals involved were sanctioned, ultimately losing their clearances and jobs. Agency rules were tightened to prevent a recurrence of such lone-ranger contracting.
But the AP story also shed an especially informative light on whether Iran’s tale of not knowing where Levinson is could possibly be true. And the bottom line is: it couldn’t. I’m 100% certain Iran arrested Levinson on Kish Island in 2007, and – unless he has died – still has him in custody.
The clue is the contact Levinson was going to meet. He was looking into the smuggling trade and corruption by Iranian officials when he went to Kish Island, and the meeting he was there for was set up for him by a retired NBC reporter, Ira Silverman. His contact was Dawud Salahuddin, whom the AP report describes briefly, but tellingly, as follows:
Levinson’s source on Kish was Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. In interviews with ABC News and the New Yorker, Salahuddin has admitted killing the diplomat
Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.
These few shorts words tell us all we need to know. Salahuddin, an American who was born as David Theodore Belfield, was a convert to Islam, and his victim was an Iranian dissident and critic of the new Islamic regime, which had seized power in 1979. Salahuddin assassinated the dissident, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, on behalf of the radical regime, and fled to it for sanctuary after committing his crime.
Salahuddin would have been under constant surveillance as a resident of Kish Island. Iranian police would know everyone he met with, and were undoubtedly aware that the March 2007 meeting had been set up by Ira Silverman, even before it happened. We can assume that Levinson was nabbed by the Iranian authorities the day he went missing, and that he has been held by them ever since.
A hostage of this kind is hard to pry out of the hands of an adversary. He’s the kind of unusual case that it takes a strong, savvy administration to get released – if the administration has the full story, and can find a pretext for negotiating a swap.
The AP story’s first record of a reaction by the George W. Bush administration – i.e., a reaction to the news that Levinson was under contract to the CIA – is from the spring of 2008, when White House officials expressed astonishment about the nature of his CIA connection. There is no information on what the Bush administration may have done to try to get Levinson back, but at that point, Bush was the lamest of ducks, and Iran couldn’t expect to negotiate a very high price for the prisoner. It’s likely that the Iranians waited to see if they could make better use of him as a bargaining chip with the next administration.
The 2011 attempt
And according to negotiators who approached the Iranian ambassador to France on Levinson’s behalf, that opportunity came at the end of October 2011. The date of the meeting was reportedly 30 October, a little over two weeks before IAEA was scheduled to release a new report on Iran’s nuclear program, which would allege that the Iranians had done work apparently related to developing a nuclear weapon.
Negotiators from the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian organization which had won the release of an Iranian-American scholar, Haleh Esfandiari, in 2007, said the timing of the meeting was driven by the IAEA report, and that the ambassador expressed willingness to deal for Robert Levinson. What the Iranians wanted was for the U.S. to delay the release of the IAEA report.
[During the meeting, the ambassador] brought up the atomic agency report, expected to be released in mid-November. Mr. [Ory] Eshel [acting on behalf of the Fellowship Foundation] noted in his account that the diplomat was apparently aware of its findings, attacking them as “fake” and adding that he believed that American officials had pressured inspectors to adopt them. …
Mr. Eshel and Mr. Mamoyan [a U.S. official accompanying him] then asked about Mr. Levinson. The Iranian diplomat stated that he was in Iran, Mr. Eshel said. He added, “There was absolutely no shadow of a doubt” about the diplomat’s meaning. [Ambassador] Miraboutalebi did not respond to inquiries about Mr. Levinson’s specific location or which faction in Iran was holding him, Mr. Eshel added.
The ambassador said he planned to meet with Ayatollah Khamenei upon his return to Iran and intended to say that religious groups like the Fellowship could help “reset” relations between Washington and Tehran. One way to demonstrate that influence, he told his two visitors, was to have American officials agree to briefly delay the I.A.E.A. report’s release.
According to the NYT article, Mamoyan’s summary of the meeting to his superiors reflected the same thing.
But, as NYT concludes, the IAEA report was actually published a little ahead of schedule instead: on 8 November. And Levinson has never been released.
What happened to negotiating for Levinson?
It’s hard to know what to make of this. Information from the last several years has revealed that the Obama administration was already making overtures to Iran – overtures that related to the Iranian nuclear program – at just about this time, in late 2011.
The Sultan of Oman acted as the principal go-between in the early outreach, a factor confirmed by a number of sources and solidified in a widely cited summary from MEMRI published in August 2015. Sultan Qaboos’s role clarifies the timeline. His earliest diplomatic effort on behalf of the U.S. outreach seems to have been in September 2011, when he negotiated the release of three American hikers imprisoned by Iran on espionage charges. And it was in December 2011 that he met with John Kerry to begin the process that would result in a secret meeting with Iranian diplomats in July of 2012.
Two senior Iranians, including Ayatollah Khamenei, are quoted by MEMRI as asserting the same thing about the Obama overtures. The U.S. administration, they said, started out by saying it wanted an agreement that would recognize Iran’s right to nuclear technology, and would enable Obama to lift sanctions. That’s the attitude we are to understand Obama approached his outreach with.
The subsequent course of events certainly lends credibility to these statements. So if the Iranians themselves connected Levinson’s release to the November 2011 IAEA report, at a time when Team Obama was beginning its push to open direct negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, and if the conclusion of that overall effort this month included the release of several long-held American prisoners by Iran – why wasn’t Levinson part of that whole package?
Was it possible for the U.S. to get IAEA to delay publication of the November 2011 report? It seems probable. It’s not as if the Obama administration was uninterested at that point in establishing good-faith milestones with Iran. The situation in fact seems to have been the exact opposite.
But even if there were reasons why that exchange of considerations didn’t come off, the question remains why Levinson wasn’t released in the JCPOA-coincident prisoner negotiations, as we now know the other prisoners were.
It’s pointless to speculate, given that we don’t have enough information. If Robert Levinson has died since 2011 – he would be 68 this year – it’s not unreasonable to suppose his family would at least have been informed of that when the other prisoners were released last week. But the mystery about his current status continues.
One thing we can say. The Iranians offered in 2011 to make him part of the bargaining process over their nuclear program. That makes it harder, not easier, to see why we know no more about him in 2016, now that the Iranian regime has gotten everything it wanted in a nuclear “deal.”