Video deepens mystery around ex-FBI agent Bob Levinson, a hostage in Iran

The family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, missing in Iran since 2007, confirmed today he's being held hostage and released a video provided by his captors.

Levinson Family/AP
This video frame grab from a Levinson family website shows retired FBI agent Robert Levinson. The family of Levinson, who vanished years ago in Iran, issued a plea to his kidnappers Friday and, for the first time, released a hostage video they received from his unidentified captors.

The mystery surrounding former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared on Iran's Kish Island in 2007, deepened today with the curiously timed release of a year-old hostage video.

Mr. Levinson worked for the FBI for 27 years and was engaged in a second career as an international investigator when he vanished. At the time, his family said he had gone to Kish, a sort of free zone for Iranian trade, to investigate cigarette smuggling for an undisclosed client.

Ever since, the US and his family have gone about the business of locating Levinson as if he were being held by the Iranian regime. The State Department has said on a number of occasions that it suspected Iran was withholding information about Levinson's disappearance.

Press TV, an Iranian government propaganda outlet, carried an article shortly after his disappearance, that said Levinson had been taken into Iranian custody on March 9, 2007, and predicted he would be freed within a "matter of days."

But today Levinson's family said he's being held hostage by an undisclosed group, and released a video of Levinson in captivity. His wife, Christine, said the family received the video in November of 2010. The video – and the family's reaction to it – in many ways serve to deepen the mystery around Levinson's plight.

The family chose to go public on a day when the Iranian regime was using the apparent capture of a US spy drone to whip up anti-US sentiment. At a showing of the drone today, Iran had partially covered it with an American flag with skulls substituted for the stars and vowed to avenge what it called an "act of war." That, plus the overall context of rising tensions with Iran, is likely complicating efforts by Levinson's family and the US government to secure his release.

In an introduction to the video, David Levinson, one of his seven children, asks the hostage-takers to "Please tell us your demands." He says the family "tried to contact you but you never responded ... we need to know what you want my family to do so my father can come home safely ... we don't know what else to do."

The younger Levinson's tones are measured, careful not to give offense to the captors of Levinson Sr. (the full video is available at the top of the website.) But a proof-of-life video with no demands at all, no means of contact provided, is more than a little strange. Its utility as a starting point for negotiations, now that a year has passed, is also limited, as it provides no evidence of his current condition.

In the clip from the Levinson video shown by the family (it isn't clear if there's more video) he's skinnier than before, appears to be wearing a t-shirt with one sleeve ripped off, and complains he's running out of diabetes medicine.

Sitting in front of a blank wall, he appeals for US government help – but in frustratingly vague terms. "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." Who is the group? He doesn't say. What are the demands? If some have been made to the US government, they haven't been disclosed. 

Levinson's case certainly seems different from recent incidents involving other Americans and citizens of other states at odds with Iran. Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd, the three young American hikers who were arrested by Iran after they strayed over the Iran-Iraq border in 2009, were acknowledged by Tehran to be in government custody early on, were the subject of direct diplomatic visits and negotiations, and were eventually released. In 2007, when Iran seized 15 members of the Royal Navy it accused of straying into its waters, it held the British sailors for just 13 days.

To be sure, some American captives have had a much rougher time of it in Iran, particularly ones with dual nationality. Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar, was arrested in Tehran in 2007 and sentenced to 12 years in prison on allegations of espionage. But even in his case, his whereabouts and the fact he was being targeted by the state were rarely in doubt.

Levinson's case has been different, and more mysterious, from the moment news of his disappearance broke. Dawud Salahuddin, an American wanted for the 1980 murder of an Iranian diplomat on behalf of the Islamic Revolution near Washington, D.C., says he shared a room with Levinson the night before he disappeared and strongly implied in interviews since that some faction of the government might be holding Levinson.

In 2007, the Financial Times quoted Mr. Salahuddin – a man wanted by the FBI and connected to Press TV – as saying he'd shared a hotel room with Levinson on March 8. Salahuddin said he was detained by Iranian authorities himself that day and upon his release the next day, Levinson was gone. "I don't think he is missing, but don't want to point my finger at anyone," he said. "Some people know exactly where he is ... he came only to see me."

Salahuddin, born David Belfield who later converted to Islam while studying at Howard University, is a murky character in Iran. He has worked with Press TV and also has extensive, seemingly candid, contacts with Western journalists. But he also has links to parts of the security apparatus, not least because of the status and respect he gained for the murder of Ali Tabatabai, the press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Washington under the Shah and assassinated as an enemy of the Islamic Revolution.

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