Days after completing a landmark deal with Iran to freeze its nuclear program, the White House publicly called Tuesday for the release of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was taken captive in Iran more than six years ago.
In the statement, the White House side-stepped the question of who exactly was responsible for Levinson’s disappearance.
Levinson “went missing,” the release says before saying the Obama administration “respectfully” asks the government in Tehran to “assist us in securing” his return.
“As we approach the upcoming holiday season, we reiterate the commitment of the United States government to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home safely to his family, friends, and loved ones,” the White House said in a statement. A private investigator after retiring from the FBI, Levinson disappeared in March 2007 on a resort island in the Persian Gulf. His family later received a video, in which Levinson is seen pleading for release, as well as photos of him dressed like a detainee at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Levinson family considers him to be the longest-held hostage in American history, noting that his time in captivity surpasses the 2,454 days that journalist Terry Anderson was held in Beirut.
The White House statement said simply that Levinson is “one of the longest-held Americans in history.” For years, the U.S. government has been calling for the safe return of Levinson and several other Americans missing in Iran.
The reminder about Levinson’s detention was an abrupt reminder of the deep distrust and ill will between Washington and Tehran despite the apparent thaw in relations between President Obama and Iran’s new leader, Hassan Rouhani, and the nuclear deal announced Sunday in Geneva.
The nuclear deal makes no mention of the detention of U.S. citizens, but White House officials say that during the negotiations in Geneva, the U.S. delegation raised the plight of U.S. citizens held in Iran, including Levinson.
Obama also pressed the issue when he spoke by phone with Rouhani in September during the United Nations General Assembly, one official said.
Advocates for the missing Americans are crafting their appeals carefully.
The Iranian government “takes great pride in its security efforts,” Levinson’s eldest son, Dan, wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the Washington Post. “We respectfully request that the Rouhani administration help us find my father.”
On their website, helpboblevinson.com, the Levinsons said they are heartened by Rouhani’s words in a CNN interview back in September.
“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,” Rouhani told journalist Christiane Amanpour. “And we’re willing to cooperate on that.”
In an interview with CNN on Monday, deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken said U.S. officials will continue to raise the cases in their talks with Tehran.
“We have been repeatedly clear that we are calling on Iran to release them,” Blinken said. “The president has raised it. We will continue to raise it. And we hope to see them return home.”