The United States has taken its first public action against Iran for the disappearance of an American on an Iranian island in 2007, sanctioning two Iranian intelligence agents it identified as directly responsible for retired FBI agent Robert Levinson’s abduction and probable death.
In a Monday statement, the U.S. Treasury Department named the sanctioned Iranian agents as Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai and described them as “high-ranking” officials with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
A senior U.S. official told reporters in a conference call it was unlikely that Baseri and Khazai have U.S. bank accounts that would be blocked by the sanctions.
But the U.S. official said the two Iranian agents would face secondary sanctions for their activities outside of Iran. Those activities have included leading MOIS delegations abroad and meeting intelligence officials from other countries, the official added.
Few other details of the two men were provided.
“I've looked into Baseri and Khazai, and unsurprisingly, there isn't an extensive public paper trail,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran in a message to VOA Persian.
Brodsky said agents of Iran’s MOIS appear to have engaged in the abduction and killing of individuals abroad as well as at home. U.S. and Turkish officials told Western media they suspect MOIS agents operating in Istanbul of killing Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in November 2019 and abducting another Iranian dissident, Habib Chaab, to Iran in October this year.
Iranian state media acknowledged the U.S. sanctions on Baseri and Khazai without comment from Iranian officials. A report Monday by state-run news agency ISNA also repeated the Iranian foreign ministry’s past rejection of Tehran’s responsibility for Levinson’s disappearance and its assertion that he left Iran many years ago.
Levinson disappeared March 9, 2007, while visiting southern Iran's Kish Island as a private investigator. He had retired from a 22-year career with the FBI nine years earlier. In 2013, several U.S. news outlets reported that Levinson had been part of a rogue CIA intelligence mission, a claim that U.S. authorities have not confirmed.
In its first substantive comment on Levinson’s fate, the Trump administration said in March that it believed Levinson “may have passed away some time ago.”
Family members had not received any proof of life from Levinson since his captors sent a video and photos of him looking gaunt and disheveled in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The Levinson family issued a statement welcoming the U.S. sanctions on the two Iranian agents as an important step “in a long road toward achieving justice” for their loved one.
“Because of these men and others like them, our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved,” the family said. “No matter how long it takes, we will find the individuals who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, and we will hold them accountable.”
The White House said the U.S. sanctions on the two Iranian agents show it will hold Tehran accountable for its use of “detention and hostage taking as a tool of diplomacy."
Iran has been detaining and preventing three other Americans with dual Iranian-American nationality from leaving the country.
“No family should ever endure the pain the Levinson family has for nearly 14 years,” read a statement from the White House press secretary. “Iran is responsible and can end this nightmare by answering questions for which only they hold the answers. Any future talks with Iran must include resolution to this case. We stand by the Levinson family, and we will never cease in our efforts to bring justice for Bob and his family.”
Asked by VOA Persian what more she thinks U.S. authorities should do, Bob’s wife Christine Levinson said: “We would like them to continue to keep the pressure on Iran, just as they have been doing, because Iran needs to finally give us the answers to what happened to Bob.”
This article was a collaboration between VOA’s English News Center and Persian Service.