WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. is looking for “proof of life” regarding a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran nearly seven years ago during a visit that, according to several news organizations, was overseen by officials at the CIA.
The Obama administration hasn’t given up its efforts to secure the release of Robert Levinson, Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“To suggest that we’ve abandoned him, or anybody has abandoned him, is simply incorrect and not helpful,” Kerry told interviewer Martha Raddatz. “The fact is that I have personally raised the issue not only at the highest level that I have been involved with but also through other intermediaries.”
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said that Iran’s government does not know the location of Levinson, who disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007.
“We know that he is not incarcerated in Iran,” Zarif said. “If he is, he is not incarcerated by the government. And I believe the government runs, pretty much, good control of the country.”
Asked in the same interview about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Zarif complained that he had not been given advance notice by the U.S. about new actions that the Treasury Department took last week to blacklist several companies and individuals who allegedly had helped Iran evade sanctions.
But, he said, Iran’s unhappiness over the new enforcement actions would not cause the government to walk away from the talks.
“The process has been derailed,” Zarif said. “The process has not died. We are trying to put it back and to correct the path and continue the negotiations because I believe there is a lot at stake for everybody.”
On the Levinson case, Kerry said the U.S. thinks Iran “has the ability to help us here.”
“We’re looking for proof of life,” Kerry said. “We’re working on several processes that I’m not free to talk about, but there are a number of different channels that are being worked, and they’re being worked aggressively.”
Zarif offered a noncommittal response. “If we can trace him and find him, we will certainly discuss this,” he said. “Everything is possible. But I’m saying that we have no trace of him in Iran.”
A video and photographs of Levinson that were sent to his family several years ago appeared to have come from Pakistan, but U.S. officials have never been able to establish whether he was being held there or in Iran or in some other country. At this point, some officials believe Levinson, who was in poor health, has most likely died.
According to articles published in recent days by the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times, Levinson worked as a CIA contractor for several years after retiring from the FBI. He reported to officials in the analysis division, who do not have authority to run intelligence gathering operations. His chief contact at the agency knew in advance of his trip to Iran, the articles say.
After Levinson disappeared, CIA officials initially told Congress that he had not been working for them. Senior officials at the agency discovered what had happened only after people close to Levinson contacted members of Congress with evidence of his ties to the CIA. Eventually, several agency officials were forced to resign over the affair, all of which remained secret until this week.
“The CIA did not tell the truth to the American Congress about Mr. Levinson,” Sen. John McCain said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
[For the record, 3:20 p.m. Dec. 15: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Levinson disappeared more than seven years ago. He went missing on the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007.]