As Iran Jails More US Citizens, State Dep’t ‘Respectfully’ Asks for Cooperation in Finding Bob Levinson

By Patrick Goodenough | October 19, 2016 | 4:22 AM EDT

The Levinson family received this undated photo of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in April 2011. (AP Photo/Levinson family)

( – The Obama administration on Tuesday “respectfully” stressed the importance of Iran cooperating in finding former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran more than nine years ago.

At the end of a statement responding to the sentencing by an Iranian court of two more Iranian-Americans – a father and son accused of “cooperating with the hostile American government” – State Department spokesman Mark Toner added a paragraph about Levinson.

“We also respectfully underscore the importance of Iran cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Mr. Robert Levinson, who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007,” it said. “As President Obama stated last January, we will not rest until the Levinson family is whole again.”

The choice of language prompted questions at the daily State Department briefing, as a reporter pointed to recent Iranian behavior including the detention of U.S. sailors in the Gulf, and the firing by its allies in Yemen of missiles at U.S. Navy ships.

“Can you explain why you think that they’re deserving of your respect?”

“Adverbs aside,” Toner replied, “what we’re trying to underscore here is that Iran made a commitment that it would help us get to the bottom of either Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts or what happened to him. And thus far they haven’t lived up to that.”

“But do you think that they’re treating you with – that the Iranian government, the judiciary system, its military, its executive, its top leader, are treating the United States with the respect that it deserves?” the reporter pressed.

“I’ll refrain from giving a comprehensive response to that,” Toner said. “But I think you’re correct in stating that parts of the Iranian government are not necessarily acting in a respectful way towards the United States.”

In Obama’s January statement cited by Toner, the president also said Iran had “agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson.”  Secretary of State John Kerry said a day later that “the Iranians are cooperating” in the effort.

But at Tuesday’s press briefing, Toner said the Iranians “haven’t lived up to” its commitment to provide information about Levinson’s whereabouts.

The retired FBI agent went missing during a visit to Kish, a small resort island about 12 miles off the Iranian mainland, in March 2007. A classified U.S. diplomatic cable dated two months later – subsequently published by Wikileaks – said the U.S. government had reason to believe Levinson had been detained by “Iranian security services.”

“Iranian authorities may have believed he was still in USG [U.S. government] employ,” the cable said. “Tehran has not acknowledged detaining Levinson, but strong circumstantial evidence points to official Iranian involvement.”

More than three years later, Levinson’s family received a “proof of life” video showing him in captivity. The family received a photograph of him in April 2011, showing him with long hair and a beard, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit – often a trademark of captives held by Islamic terrorists.

As long ago as 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the same adverb – “respectfully” – in urging Iran’s assistance in establishing Levinson’s whereabouts.

“As we approach the fourth anniversary of Bob Levinson’s disappearance, we have received recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in southwest Asia,” she said in a March 2011 statement. “As the government of Iran has previously offered its assistance in this matter, we respectfully request the Iranian government to undertake humanitarian efforts to safely return and reunite Bob with his family. We would appreciate the Iranian government’s efforts in this matter.”

Dual nationals targeted

The State Department has been warning U.S. citizens, especially dual national Iranian-Americans, about the risk of arrest and detention during travel to the country.

“Iranian authorities continue to unjustly detain and imprison U.S. citizens, particularly Iranian-Americans, including students, journalists, business travelers, and academics, on charges including espionage and posing a threat to national security,” it said in an August advisory.

On Tuesday, two U.S. citizens, Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi, were reported to have been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment each.

Toner said Siamak had been “unjustly” held for over a year and his father since last February.

Critics in the U.S. Congress accuse Iran of taking American citizens “hostage,” using them as leverage in dealings with the United States.

Last January the regime freed four imprisoned Americans, on the same day as $400 million in cash was flown into Tehran. The administration rejects accusations that it amounted to a “ransom,” saying that it – plus another $1.3 billion in cash paid later – was settlement of a long-outstanding Iranian legal claim.

The administration did later concede that the money had been used as “leverage” to ensure the Americans’ release that day.

Siamak Namazi was not among the Americans released at the time (his father was not yet detained). Asked about attempts to get him freed, Toner said he did not believe he was included in the January deal.

“I can only say that we have continually raised the plight of all U.S. citizens who we believe are unjustly detained by the Iranian authorities, and the Namazis are no exception,” he said.

The January release deal also did not include any progress on Levinson, and Kerry said at the time he felt “horrible” for the missing man’s family.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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