Iranian hostages redux

Kenneth Timmerman President, Foundation for Democracy in Iran
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Six years ago today, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared from his hotel on Iran’s Kish Island, a resort island in the Persian Gulf. He was kidnapped shortly after meeting with David Belfield, an American who fled to Iran in 1980 after assassinating an Iranian diplomat from the shah’s regime in Bethesda, Maryland.

Belfield has acknowledged that he met with Levinson on Kish Island. “Some people know exactly where he is,” Belfield said. “He came only to see me.”

By all accounts, Levinson’s abductors were acting on orders from Tehran.

Early speculation tied his abduction to the disappearance of a top Iranian military official, Brig. General Alireza Asghari, one month earlier.

Gen. Asghari is believed to have provided gold-plated intelligence to Western and Israeli intelligence agencies about secret nuclear weapons-related programs and facilities in Iran.

The Iranian regime knew that Gen. Asghari possessed some of their best-kept secrets, including the location of a top-secret uranium enrichment plant at Fordow, outside of Qom.

For the past six years, the FBI has mounted an extensive effort to locate and free Robert Levinson.

His wife, Christine, has learned Persian and traveled to Iran, where the authorities cynically pledged their support while claiming they had no information about his whereabouts.

His captors emailed the Levinson family a video and a series of photographs in November 2010, in which Levinson implored the U.S. government to meet his captors’ “demands.”

In the photographs he appeared in an orange jumpsuit with wild white hair and an untrimmed white beard, with his hands bound in chains. In each, he held a different message. “I am here in Guantanamo,” one read. “Do you know where it is?”

So far, the FBI says it has never received any demands, nor does it know the identity or even the nationality of his captors. The video seemed to have been filmed — or staged to appear as if it had been filmed — in Afghanistan or the border region of Pakistan, with Pashtun wedding music playing in the background.

But in January, U.S. officials told the Associated Press they had determined the Levinson video was staged by Iran.

“The tradecraft used to send those items was too good, indicating professional spies were behind them,” the officials told the AP.

The Iranian regime has a long history of using proxy groups to take U.S. hostages. In Lebanon in the 1980s, Islamic Republic officials pledged to “help” President Ronald Reagan in “finding” U.S. and British hostages held for years by Hezbollah, if the U.S. would deliver weapons they could use in their war with Iraq.

Levinson’s case is decidedly different from that of Americans and Iranian-Americans arrested and held in Iran for alleged crimes. The regime has openly acknowledged jailing these individuals, and seemed to revel in treating them harshly.

It is known that Levinson was investigating a cigarette smuggling network, and that Belfield had offered to put him in contact with sources in Tehran who might be able to help.

He may have upset a faction within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps by coming too close to discovering their involvement in the lucrative trade in black market cigarettes. Reports from Iranian sources over the years placed him in an IRGC prison outside of Tehran; in a special wing of Evin Prison; in a prison hospital, where he was treated for bone cancer; and back on Kish Island.

In a three-minute video-taped message, Levinson’s son pleaded with his father’s captors to make their demands known. “We tried to contact you, but you never responded,” he said. “We don’t know what else to do. Please tell us what you want.”

The family has been asking the Obama White House to make Levinson’s case a top priority. But despite a meeting with the president and counter-terrorism director John Brennan, nothing has happened.

The Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the FBI Agents Association have asked their 20,000 members to observe a moment of silence in honor of Levinson at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time Friday.

We should all join them in that prayer.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is the founder and president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.