U.S. officials called out Iran Monday, formally blaming two intelligence officers for the abduction and likely death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson who disappeared nearly 14 years ago from an island off Iran’s southern coast.
Federal authorities said the actions attributed to Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai were authorized by top Iranian officials, ending in the likely death of Levinson. The Trump administration identified Baseri and Khazai as “senior officials” in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and said they were involved in Levinson’s abduction on an Iranian island in March 2007.
The sanctions announcement against the two officers, coming at the tail end of the Trump administration, were largely symbolic. But the action could complicate the incoming Biden administration’s plans to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that President Donald Trump had abandoned in 2018.
“No family should ever endure the pain the Levinson family has for nearly 14 years,” the White House said in a statement. “Iran is responsible and can end this nightmare by answering questions for which only they hold the answers. Any future talks with Iran must include resolution to this case.”
The Levinson family called the U.S. action “one step in a long road toward achieving justice.”
“Robert Levinson will never come home to his family alive because of the cruel, cynical and inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities,” the family said in a statement. “Because of these men and others like them, our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved.
“No matter how long it takes, we will find the individuals who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, and we will hold them accountable.”
Trump administration officials announced in March that Levinson had likely died in Iranian custody after going missing from the island of Kish. Exactly what Levinson was doing there remains a matter of dispute, with some reports suggesting he was working for the CIA to recruit an Iranian spy and others disputing that.
Levinson’s case has been a deeply contentious flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran for years. He was the longest-held hostage in American history, although Iranian officials refused to confirm his whereabouts – saying they had no information about him.
A proof-of-life video emerged in 2011, followed by photos of Levinson wearing an orange jumpsuit of the kind typically associated with prisons or hostages. But Iran insisted it was not holding him.
In 2013, The Associated Press reported that Levinson was on a mission for the CIA to recruit a potential Iranian mole. But the FBI said he was working as a private investigator, likely probing a cigarette-smuggling ring. And the White House disputed the story, calling it “highly irresponsible.”
Then-White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the time that Levinson “was not a U.S. government employee” when he went into Iran in 2007.
Christine Levinson, his wife, told USA TODAY that she did not know why her husband traveled to Iran. He never spoke to her about the work he did for the government, she said in an interview last year. The Levinsons had seven children, and the youngest was just 4-months-old when he disappeared.
The Trump administration has significantly escalated tensions with Iran since withdrawing from the nuclear deal, imposing sweeping sanctions on Tehran’s economy and seeking to isolate the country politically.
Biden has said he wants to rejoin to the nuclear accord, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. But experts say it will be difficult, in part because Iran is no longer in compliance with the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment.