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'Unimaginable Milestone' for American Held in Iran

By Elliot Jager   |   Sunday, 01 Dec 2013 07:28 AM

December 1 marks 2,460 days of captivity for Robert Levinson, the private investigator and retired FBI agent who has been held in Iran since March 9, 2007.

Prior to Levinson, journalist Terry Anderson, who has been imprisoned by Iran's proxy militia Hezbollah for 2,454 days, and released December 4, 1991, had been the longest held Iranian hostage.

While Levinson, 65, is the longest-held hostage in the Islamic Republic, he is not the only American in captivity. Pastor Saeed Abedini has been held by Iranian authorities since July 2012 on charges related to the promotion of Christianity; Amir Mirza Hekmati, an Arizona native, was arrested while visiting family in August 2011.

The Nov. 24 deal between Iran and six world powers in Geneva, aimed at blocking Tehran's nuclear weapons program, raised fresh hopes for the release of the three prisoners.

President Barack Obama has appealed twice in the past several months for Iran's help in resolving Levinson's case. "We respectfully ask the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to assist us in securing Mr. Levinson's health, welfare, and safe return," a White House statement before Thanksgiving said.

According to the Levinson family, they have received a hostage videotape but the identity and demands of those holding Levinson remain murky.

A tape released by the family in 2011 – it is not known when it was made – shows a gaunt Levinson pleading: "I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me. Please help me get home. Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something."

His son, David Levinson, addressing his father's captors by video, said: "Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely."

The New York Times reported that emails sent by the captors to the family were routed via either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Levinson went to Iran on behalf of an unknown private client to investigate cigarette smuggling. Terrorist groups have been known to use such smuggling to finance their operations.

Journalist Laura Rozen reported that Levinson may have had information which implicated high Iranian Revolutionary Guards officials in money-laundering and drug trafficking.

Levinson had gone to Kish Island, a Persian Gulf resort, to meet with David Belfield, an American convert to Islam who goes by the name of Dawud Salahuddin. Belfield, who once described himself as an "angry" and "alienated" African American, is reported to have ties with Iranian intelligence.

In 1980 Salahuddin assassinated a former diplomat in the Shah's government in Bethesda, Maryland before fleeing the U.S. for Iran.

Officially, Iranian leaders claim not to know anything about Levinson's disappearance from Kush Island.

In an interview with CNN, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said, "We don't know where he is, who he is. He is an American who has disappeared. We have no news of him."

Rouhani added, "We are willing to help, and all the intelligence services in the region can come together to gather information about him to find his whereabouts."

Related Stories:

Iranian-American Pastor Transferred to Notorious Prison

US Pleads for Release of Ex-FBI Agent Held in Iran

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