x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mystery of the missing ex-FBI man

It is now more than two years since Bob Levinson vanished but Tehran still refuses to reveal what has happened to him.

Robert Levinson with his daughters.
Robert Levinson with his daughters.

NICOSIA // Robert "Bob" Levinson should be enjoying a double celebration today. It is his 35th wedding anniversary and one of his three sons is graduating from university. But the former FBI agent, a devoted family man, will not be with them. His wife, Christine, last heard from him 26 months ago when he called from Dubai to let her know he would be "out of pocket" - unavailable - for 24 hours. He would phone again on returning to the emirate. He never did.

Mr Levinson had not divulged his destination but he was on his way to the Gulf island of Kish to pursue investigations into cigarette smuggling. "I have no definite information about him, but in my heart I believe he is alive and well and that the Iranian authorities can help bring him home," said Mrs Levinson, of Coral Springs, Florida. "He's a wonderful man and a terrific father and husband," she said in an interview.

Mr Levinson's unresolved and mysterious disappearance received little media attention until Barack Obama, the US president, took office, pledging to engage with Iran. Washington is now pressing Tehran publicly for answers on the missing father of seven. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, recently criticised Tehran for ignoring repeated pleas from Washington and Mr Levinson's family for information about him. Iranian officials deny any knowledge of his whereabouts.

Mr Levinson was accustomed to danger. Before his retirement from the FBI in 1998, he spent more than 20 years with the agency, mainly busting Russian and Italian mobsters. It is known that he made it to Kish, a relatively liberal tourism resort renowned for its beaches, good diving and sea turtles. It is also established that on Kish Mr Levinson met a US fugitive, Dawud Salahuddin, a black American convert to Islam. Salahuddin, born David Belfield, fled the US to Tehran in 1980 after shooting dead in Maryland an Iranian former diplomat who supported Iran's deposed shah.

Weeks after Mr Levinson's disappearance, Salahuddin told reporters he had met him on Kish. The meeting, he said, was to put Mr Levinson in touch with Iranian authorities to help his cigarette smuggling investigation. Salahuddin claimed that while they met at the hotel, he was detained for questioning about his Iranian passport by plainclothes police officers. He maintained that when he was released the following day, the officers told him Mr Levinson had flown back to Dubai.

Mr Levinson, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, was last seen getting into a taxi to the airport after checking out of the Maryam Hotel on Kish. It was March 9 2007, a day before his 59th birthday. One theory is that he is a captive in Iran of well-connected, underworld figures angered by his cigarette smuggling investigations for a client of his private security-consulting firm. Another is that he is a pawn held by the Iranian authorities to swap for several Iranian diplomats - suspected by the US of being Revolutionary Guards - who were seized by American forces in northern Iraq shortly before he vanished.

The former theory gained more weight recently when a lawyer retained by Mr Levinson's family in Tehran told an international radio station: "I think he is being held by people who have some power in Iran and are probably involved in cigarette smuggling or other issues that [Levinson] was investigating." The lawyer, Mohammed Hossein Aghasi, suspects that an American living in Tehran might have been involved in Mr Levinson's disappearance. The lawyer declined to confirm whether the American is Salahuddin, the fugitive who fled to Iran three decades ago. "I am not going to name the person at this point," he told RFE/RL, a private, Czech-based international radio service funded by the US Congress.

But the story given to Mr Aghasi by his unidentified American interlocutor is virtually identical to the one Salahuddin told reporters two years ago. Mr Aghasi's own investigations on Kish, however, confirmed the "American" had not been detained by police there. It was this inconsistency in the man's account that aroused the lawyer's suspicions. Mr Levinson's family, desperate only for his safe return, refuses to indulge in any speculation about who might be responsible for his plight. Nor has it accused the Iranian authorities of any involvement in his disappearance.

But his family is still seeking clarification of a report by an Iranian government-sanctioned media company shortly after he vanished that he was "in the hands of Iranian Security forces since the early hours of March 9" [2007]. He was expected to be "freed in a matter of days", Press TV added. The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, swiftly denied he was being held. Christine Levinson, accompanied by one of her three sons and her sister, made a brave but fruitless trip to Iran in Dec 2007 to search for him. Iranian officials promised Mrs Levinson they would give her a final report of their investigation into her husband's disappearance when it was complete. She never received one.