Visiting Iran, in whatever capacity, is always a huge risk considering how many Americans and citizens of other countries have been held hostage there.
You may recall the recent release of two American hikers from an Iranian prison in September. They were lucky, but former FBI Agent Robert Levinson has been missing after a visit to Iran for nearly five years now. The U.S. worked behind the scenes to secure the release of the hikers but officials said Levinson was not part of those discussions.
In the nearly five years that Levinson has been missing, the U.S. government has never had solid intelligence about what happened to him. Levinson had been retired from the FBI for years and was working as a private investigator when he traveled to Iran in March 2007. His family has said an investigation into cigarette smuggling brought him to Kish, a resort island where Americans need no visa to visit.
Long after he vanished in Iran, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson reappeared in a video and a series of photographs sent to his family over the past year, transforming a mysterious disappearance into a hostage standoff with an unknown kidnapper, The Associated Press has learned.
In the video emailed to his family in November 2010, Levinson pleaded with the U.S. government to meet the demands of his unidentified captors.
“I have been treated well. But I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years,” Levinson says. “And please help me get home.”
The 54-second video showed Levinson looking haggard but unharmed, sitting in front of what appeared to be a concrete wall. He had lost considerable weight, particularly in his face, and his white shirt hung off him. There were no signs of recent mistreatment. But Levinson, who has a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, implored the U.S. to help him quickly.
“I am not in very good health,” he says. “I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine.”
The AP saw the video and obtained a government transcript of Levinson’s statement soon after it arrived last year but did not immediately report it because the U.S. government said doing so would complicate diplomatic efforts to bring Levinson home.
Interestingly, this case is being treated by the U.S. as a diplomatic issue rather than a hostage situation. This is a change in the usual U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran when one of its citizens is being held against their will. Sounds like a hostage situation to me, but it appears the U.S. may be trying to “soften” its approach with Iran.
However, diplomacy efforts appear to have stalled, U.S. relations with Iran have worsened and Levinson’s wife, Christine, of Coral Springs, Fla., is expected to release the video herself in a desperate attempt to make contact with whoever is holding her 63-year-old husband.
The prevailing U.S. government theory had been that Levinson was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. But as every lead fizzled and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead.
The surprise arrival of the video and photographs quickly changed that view but did little to settle the question, “Where is he being held and by whom?” The video contained tantalizing clues suggesting Levinson was not being held in Iran at all, but rather in Pakistan. Then, the photographs, which arrived a few months after the video, contained hints that Levinson might be in Afghanistan.
The video prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce publicly in March that Levinson was alive and urged the Iranians to help find him. Clinton did not refer to Levinson as a hostage in March and she softened the U.S. rhetoric toward Tehran.
Shortly after Clinton’s remarks, the Levinson family received a series of photos of Levinson dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. In these photos, Levinson’s hair and beard were much longer and he looked thinner. In each photo, he wore a different sign hung around his neck. One read, “Why you can not help me.”
Investigators determined that the video was routed through an Internet address in Pakistan, suggesting that Levinson might be held there. Also, Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background. The photos led investigators down another path – the photos were traced back to a different Internet address, this one in Afghanistan. Some U.S. officials believe the Iranian government routed the video through Pakistan in an attempt to blame Levinson’s disappearance on someone else – most likely an anti-Iran terrorist group Jundallah.
The video was accompanied by a demand that the U.S. release prisoners, but officials said the United States is not holding anyone matching the names on the list. It’s possible some of them may have been held by the Pakistani government at one point, but officials say the demand doesn’t offer any indication of who might be holding Levinson.
U.S. authorities have repeatedly analyzed the video and the apparently scripted remarks Levinson made hoping to find clues.
In one video, Levinson said a “group” had held him for three and a half years. This could suggest he is being held by a criminal organization or terrorist group, rather than a government. He also said he had been held “here” for that time, suggesting he had not been moved.
Another clue may be Levinson’s dire warning about his diabetes medication. He vanished years ago. Whoever is holding him must have had access to diabetes medicine at one point. Was he running out of medication because he was moved somewhere else or did Levinson intend to add even more urgency for the U.S.?
Levinson appears to be “hanging in the wind” with no current hope of his release. Without knowing who is holding him, where he is being held and demands to release people that the U.S. says are not being held, it seems there is a stalemate.
The Levinson family has not updated its website since June where Christine Levinson wrote an open letter to her husband.
“I am willing to do whatever is necessary to bring you home,” she wrote. “At the same time I’m at a loss as to how I can do that.”
Read more and watch video@ msnbc