New Questions about Ex-FBI Agent Missing in Iran

Is Iran holding Robert Levinson as a potential bargaining chip with the United States?

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Robert Levinson spent more than 20 years in the FBI tracking down the usual suspects, from forgers and drug dealers to Russian mobsters. But it was his work as a private eye, ostensibly on the trail of cigarette smugglers, that got him into trouble.

The former G-man vanished under mysterious circumstances nearly two years ago while on the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf. A growing number of people in Washington, including some lawmakers, suspect he is being held by Iranian authorities, perhaps as a bargaining chip. If so, the Levinson case could provide an olive branch—or become a time bomb—for relations between Tehran and Washington, just as the Obama administration is hoping for a fresh start in dealing with Iran.

Iran has a record of hostage-taking—most famously 52 Americans during the Iranian revolution in 1979. In 2007, the Iranians seized a group of British sailors on patrol near Iranian waters and an Iranian-American scholar visiting her 93-year-old mother (all later released), and, perhaps, Robert Levinson.

It's a case that's long on speculation and short on facts, and it has largely flown under the public's radar. But it received an emotional airing February 3 when Levinson's eldest daughter Susan, tears streaming down her face, called on Tehran to at least acknowledge that her father is alive. "We're in so much pain living without him," she said at a Capitol news conference with other family members.

Tehran says publicly that it has no information about Levinson, though Iran's state-affiliated television in April 2007 said he was being detained. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say unofficial Iranian contacts have implied his imprisonment by raising the idea of a prisoner swap for several alleged Iranian spies—suspected members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps—captured by the U.S. military in the Iraqi city of Arbil just weeks before Levinson vanished.

Just who Levinson's clients were and why he was in Iran remain among the many publicly unanswered questions. His wife, Christine, says that it was her husband's first Mideast trip. She says he met a man named Daoud Salahuddin as part of an investigation into cigarette smuggling, which is a billion-dollar business for both the Revolutionary Guard and the Russian mob. Levinson disappeared from his hotel shortly thereafter.

The alleged Salahuddin connection adds a further plot twist. He once went by the name David Belfield and, in 1980, by his own account, gunned down a leading Iranian dissident in Bethesda, Md., at the behest of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's regime. He then fled to Iran, where he has been living ever since, though there are rumors that he is disillusioned with the regime and is trying to return to the United States (where he is under a 1981 indictment for the assassination).

The FBI has been investigating Levinson's disappearance, but officials are not saying anything publicly. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson says he believes Levinson is being held in a secret Iranian prison, though he hasn't offered evidence to support his claim. Because Iran and the United States haven't had formal relations since the 1979 hostage taking, the two speak through Swiss intermediaries, though there's been no progress on this case.