x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bride-to-be pleads with Iran for father's return in time for wedding

Daughter appeals to Iran to release ex-FBI agent missing for three years after visit to Kish Island.

Daniel Levinson, left, displays a photo of his father, the former FBI agent Robert Levinson, holding his grandson Ryan, during a press conference with his mother Christine at the Swiss embassy in Tehran in December 2007.
Daniel Levinson, left, displays a photo of his father, the former FBI agent Robert Levinson, holding his grandson Ryan, during a press conference with his mother Christine at the Swiss embassy in Tehran in December 2007.

Sarah Levinson has only one wish for her wedding - that her father walk her down the aisle, something she hopes the Iranian government will help happen. It was three years ago that Bob Levinson, a private investigator and former FBI agent, travelled to Dubai to investigate cigarette smuggling. He took what was supposed to be a 24-hour trip across the water to Kish Island, an Iranian free trade zone just off the coast, but never returned.

Since then, the Levinson family has been in a painful limbo. In a heartfelt open letter addressed to the Iranian and US governments last week, Ms Levinson, 29, who got engaged a month and a half ago, implored them to help return her father safely in time for her wedding this September. "I cannot imagine not having him there, he means the world to me and the only thing I've ever dreamed about for my wedding day is having a wonderful husband and having my father give me away," she said. "I want him there by my side. All I can do now is keep talking to people and write this open letter in the hopes that somebody might be able to help us."

She hand-delivered the letter to the Iranian mission at the United Nations in New York on March 9, the anniversary of her father's disappearance. "My father needs to be home now to dance with me at my wedding," she wrote. "I beg of you, with every ounce of my being, to please make that happen." The story of Mr Levinson's disappearance is a mysterious one. After 22 years with the FBI specialising in Russian organised crime and money laundering, he set up a private investigation business. His wife, Christine, says he was in Dubai investigating the illegal cigarette trade for several corporate clients, but she's not sure who they were.

He travelled to Kish on March 8, telling his wife that he would be incommunicado for a day and checked into Hotel Maryam on a quiet part of the island. With whom he met there adds an air of intrigue. His appointment was with Dawud Salahuddin. Formerly known as David Belfield, Mr Salahuddin is an African-American convert to Islam who has admitted to the 1980 murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, an outspoken critic of Ayatollah Khomenei who was living in exile in the US. After the shooting Mr Salahuddin fled to Iran, where he has worked in journalism and as an actor. He remains wanted by the FBI.

Mrs Levinson, who met with Mr Salahuddin when she went to Kish Island to retrace her husband's steps in December 2007, said she's sure Mr Salahuddin met her husband, as he returned one of his books to her. "Dawud told me that he met with Bob and when he left Bob he was at the hotel," she said. "He went back to the hotel and Bob had checked out. I don't know exactly what the meeting was about but he told me it was about cigarette smuggling."

The hotel register shows that Mr Levinson checked out, but according to flight manifests shown to his wife he never boarded his plane back to Dubai. Mr Salahuddin claims that he was hauled off for questioning by the Iranian intelligence services that day. Shortly after Mr Levinson's disappearance, Press TV, an Iranian state-run satellite channel, reported that the former FBI agent was "in the hands of Iranian Security forces since the early hours of March 9".

The announcement stoked speculation that Iranian authorities had detained Mr Levinson, an explanation that US officials have hinted at. Iranian officials, however, have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. Others have theorised that he fell victim to an organised crime group involved in the smuggling he was investigating. "I just don't know what happened," said Mrs Levison. In 2007 Mrs Levinson received assurances from the Iranian authorities that they were investigating her husband's disappearance and would share the results of their inquiries with her, but she's been unable to get an update since.

His case has reportedly been raised in nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran that took place in the autumn of last year, but no new information has been gleaned. "My father is a wonderful, wonderful man and he's missed so much every day," said Sarah Levinson. "I don't want to even think about the possibility of him not being there to give me away." The family is optimistic Mr Levinson is alive in Iran.

"I do believe he is," said Mrs Levinson. "I've had no information that would indicate anything had happened. Every day I get up and hope today will be the day he comes home." @Email:lmorris@thenational.ae