by Clare M. Lopez
Startling photos of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in March 2007 while on a trip to Iran’s Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, are the latest evidence in a litany of American hostages, taken, held and sometimes murdered by the Iranian mullahs and their terror proxies over a period of more than three decades.
Broadcast on the Fox News Greta Van Susteren program on January 8, 2013, the two-year-old Levinson photos show a haggard man with wildly unkempt graying hair and beard in chains and wearing an orange jumpsuit.
His wife, Christine, who was Van Susteren’s guest, described her conviction that her husband is still alive even though U.S. officials have said little publicly in the nearly six years since Levinson was kidnapped.
A 22-year FBI veteran, Levinson worked as a private investigator after his 1998 retirement from government service. Although in the region on an assignment for Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates corporate and government corruption, Levinson decided to fly to Kish Island after spending several days on assignment looking into a cigarette smuggling case in Dubai.
On Kish Island, he reportedly was scheduled to meet with Dawud Salahuddin (born David Belfield), an African-American convert to Islam and wanted fugitive for the July 1980 contract murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, who became an outspoken critic of the Khomeini regime in the months following the overthrow of the Shah.
One day after meeting with Salahuddin, Levinson disappeared and, before these latest photos, had been seen only in a 2010 videotape and some earlier photographs that were made public in December 2011. In the tape, a gaunt Levinson asked for U.S. government help in meeting the (unspecified) demands of his captors, whose identity is not mentioned.
The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to Levinson’s safe recovery and return and the Department of State also is involved in working with the Iranian government to secure his release. In a 2011 statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said American officials had received indications that Mr. Levinson “is being held somewhere in southwest Asia.“
According to FOX News now, that statement was a red herring, improbably intended as a “goodwill gesture to Iran,” by suggesting that Al-Qaeda or other terrorists were holding Levinson. In her January 8, 2013 interview with Van Susteren, Christine Levinson said she believes that her husband is being held in Iran.
U.S. officials, cited by FOX, judge that the Iranian intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), likely is behind both Levinson’s kidnapping and the email transmission of his photos and video to the family.
The FBI, which insists that Levinson was not working for the U.S. government at the time of his kidnapping, claims it does not know who is holding Levinson or what their demands might be. The Iranian regime, of course, denies knowing anything about Levinson.
The December 2006 seizure and imprisonment of Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, demonstrated another variation on the Iranian regime’s predilection for kidnapping American citizens. This time, it targeted an Iranian-American academic whose U.S. citizenship was no protection.
Imprisoned for 105 days after her passport was stolen in Tehran, Esfandiari had been a regular visitor to Iran, where her elderly mother lived. In her case, the regime seemed to want to register its pique at U.S. programs it viewed as supportive of regime change in Iran—although the Wilson Center would seem an odd target for such a charge. In any case, Esfandiari was released unharmed in August 2007 after her mother put up her Tehran apartment to pay the “bail” (ransom).
The Roxana Saberi case showed the Iranian regime continuing its pattern of seizing Americans and sometimes using them as bargaining chips to obtain the release of its own operatives being held in detention. Saberi is a U.S. citizen who was working as a journalist in Iran when she was arrested in January 2009. Although Saberi holds dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship, Iran refuses to recognize dual citizenship and insists on treating such individuals solely as Iranian subjects.
She initially was charged with working without press credentials but three months later, an Iranian judge brought far more serious charges of espionage on behalf of the U.S. against her. After a brief “trial,” Saberi was sentenced to an eight-year prison term.
There was something that Iran badly wanted, though, and that was the release of five IRGC Qods Force commanders, who’d been caught coordinating terrorist attacks in Iraq that killed hundreds of Americans.
The so-called “Irbil Five” (detained by American forces in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in 2007), were senior Qods Force commanders, acting on orders from the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They were responsible for providing Iranian-manufactured EFPs (Explosively Formed Projectiles) to terror militias in Iraq to maim and kill Americans.
Further, these five Qods Force commanders not only coordinated the supply of Iranian EFPs but also acted as terror liaison and military advisors to local Iraqi terrorists as well as Al-Qaeda units.
Roxana Saberi became the bargaining chip for the release of these terrorists. In May 2009, the Iranian press reported that Vali Nasr, a senior advisor of Iranian heritage in the Obama administration, was in Iran. Saberi’s case was sent up on appeal to an Iranian appeals court, a hearing was held on May 10, 2009, and voila! – her charges were reduced to possession of classified information, and her sentence was reduced to two years, suspended.
Saberi was released the next day and flew home to the U.S. Two months later, in July 2009, President Obama freed the Irbil Five, swapping Iranian terror masters responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of American deaths and injuries, for one innocent American citizen hostage.
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Clare Lopez is a senior fellow at RadicalIslam.org and a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on the Middle East, national defense and counterterrorism. Lopez served for 20 years as an operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).