Family of American hostage in Iran finds new hope for father's return

Family of American hostage in Iran finds new hope for father's return
© Levinson Family

The family of American hostage Bob Levinson found new hope of bringing the former FBI agent home. Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 while on an unsanctioned CIA intelligence-gathering mission.

Newly translated documents, rare recognition from the Islamic Republic and an increased monetary reward for information regarding Levinson’s whereabouts provide fresh momentum for the family to demand the release of the husband, father and grandfather.

“He has no human rights whatsoever right now,” Sarah Moriarty, Levinson’s daughter, told The Hill. “The international community needs to come out strong and say this is unacceptable. They need to resolve this case now and send our dad home to us.”

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Levinson is believed to be the longest-held American hostage abroad, although Tehran has never publicly acknowledged holding the former government worker.

Levinson worked 22 years as a special agent for the FBI.

The family points to updated translations on two Iranian documents they acquired in 2010 that describe their fathers arrest on Kish Island, Levinson’s last known location. Among the key words revealed in the new translations are references to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and “judicial courts.”

This gives more weight to the claim that filings at the United Nations last week stipulate that Tehran has an “open case” on Levinson in their Revolutionary Court, The Associated Press first reported, and it’s significant that the court specializes in cases dealing with espionage, accusations of sabotage or attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Iranian officials, however, tried to walk back the U.N. filing, saying the “open case” refers to Levinson as a “missing person” and is not acknowledgement that Tehran is pursuing prosecution.

“We believe these are a smoking gun,” Moriarty said of the documents. The family had initially turned the documents over to the FBI and said the agency was unable to verify their authenticity and missed key words in the translation, such as the “judicial” court their father was referred to and the involvement of the Ministry of Intelligence.

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The documents were re-translated by Ladan Archin, a native Farsi speaker and the former Iran Country Director at the Department of Defense during the Bush administration. Archin’s translations and involvement in the case were first reported by ABC news, which also cited a senior U.S. official who stated that the FBI has no reason to believe the documents are forgeries.

The first document is a correspondence between the Deputy of Counter Intelligence and the Head of the Judiciary Office of the Armed Forces, Hojatol-Islam Bahrami, on the day before Levinson disappeared. The correspondence acknowledges Levinson’s presence, although mistakenly referred to as “Anderson”, on Kish Island and that he is a member of the FBI “or may be CIA.”

The author of the letter calls for Levinson’s arrest on the basis of his “spying activities,” and that he be transferred to a “detention center with a maximum security” and in coordination with “MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence] brothers.”

The second document, dated May 2, 2007, refers to a “judicial” order for the “accused” subject and calls Levinson’s situation an urgent matter because his health is described as deteriorating greatly.

The last public proof of life the family received was in 2011, with the release of a video showing a gaunt Levinson saying he is running out of diabetes medication and “not in very good health.”

“The urgency is now. Iran has the opportunity now. For us every day matters,” Moriarty said. “Our dad is 71-years-old. In the documents he is not in good health, in the video he’s not in good health. We just want to bring him home so he can live a quiet peaceful life with us.”

The new revelations come as Iran is facing increased pressure at home and abroad. Tehran has violently cracked down on domestic protests triggered by an increase in gas prices and instituted a media and communications blackout. More than 100 people are believed to have been killed during the protests and thousands arrested.

The regime is also antagonizing European nations party to the 2015 nuclear deal, including breaching the terms of the agreement by enriching uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency has accused Tehran of intimidation for detaining one of its inspectors before canceling her accreditation and is calling for the regime to explain the presence of nuclear material at an undeclared location.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE tweeted last week an opening for Iran to make a “positive step” by releasing Levinson and followed up with a warning against Tehran escalating its nuclear program.

“If Iran is able to turn over to the U.S. kidnapped former FBI Agent Robert A. Levinson, who has been missing in Iran for 12 years, it would be a very positive step,” the president tweeted.

“At the same time, upon information & belief, Iran is, & has been, enriching uranium. THAT WOULD BE A VERY BAD STEP!”

The tweet was an unexpected, but a welcome surprise for the Levinson family.

“I was sleeping and woke up to all the texts and discussions among our family,” said Dan Levinson, Bob’s son. “Everybody’s very encouraged, I’d say is the word, and we’re trying to figure out next steps and working on how to keep this momentum going and keep the pressure on Iran.”

The family is also heartened by an increase in monetary compensation for information related to their father. On Nov. 4, the State Department had announced a $20 million reward for information on the whereabouts of Levinson, in addition a $5 million reward offered by the FBI.

“We believe that Iran only responds to pressure, after dealing with them for 12 and a half years,” Dan Levinson said. “Between sanctions and steps like they’re taking, with bringing my dad’s case with a new reward, with President Trump’s tweet, we only see it as a positive development.”

The appointment of former U.S. envoy for hostage negotiations Robert O’Brien to National Security adviser in September underscores Trump’s priorities of bringing home American hostages. The president has shown a rare, emotional dedication to the families of American’s held abroad.

“He seems to take a real, genuine personal interest in this,” Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she specializes in nuclear deterrence and missile defense, said of the president’s focus on returning American hostages. “And this kind of fits in very well with his ‘America First’ foreign policy orientation.”

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that even if Trump was laying the groundwork for an opening to negotiations with Iran, it must be taken in the context of the Obama Administration recovery of hostages in 2016 that coincided with the release of $400 million to Tehran.

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“In this case, the danger of ransoming hostages, is that ... Iran has a tendency to seize more hostages after the initial ones are released. The question is, do you want to play into that?” he said.

Securing the release of America’s longest-held hostage could provide Trump with a victorious photo opportunity in the middle of the intense focus on the impeachment inquiry into whether the president held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for hurting his domestic political rivals.

“I think he likes to greet them warmly in the Oval Office, claim victory,” Rubin said. “He likes to pretend that he’s the only one who has done this. ... But, it is a momentary silver lining in what otherwise is a lackluster national security legacy.” 

Iran is also holding four other American citizens in prison. They are Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi and his octogenarian father Baquer; U.S. navy veteran Michael White and Chinese American Xiyue Wang.