The Treasury Department says it knows the Iranian intelligence officers who kidnapped the former FBI agent Robert Levinson who died in their custody. U.S. officials announced on Monday that two members of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) would be sanctioned for their alleged role in Levinson’s kidnapping and detention.
“Senior Iranian officials authorized Levinson’s abduction and detention and launched a disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the Iranian regime,” the statement reads.
The Treasury Department identified Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai as senior Iranian intel officials involved in Levinson’s kidnapping and disappearance. Baseri is allegedly a “high-ranking MOIS officer involved in counterespionage activities in and outside of Iran” who has “worked directly with intelligence officials from other countries in order to harm U.S. interests,” according to the Treasury statement. Khazai is a “high-ranking member of the MOIS” who has allegedly worked with Iran’s intel program in foreign countries.
In a statement released alongside the sanctions designation, FBI Director Christopher Wray accused Iran of lying about its role in Levinson’s disappearance in 2007. “The government of Iran pledged to provide assistance in bringing Bob Levinson home, but it has never followed through. The truth is that Iranian intelligence officers—with the approval of senior Iranian officials—were involved in Bob’s abduction and detention.”
Levinson, a former FBI agent, flew to Kish Island off the southern Iran coast while ostensibly pursuing an investigation into counterfeit cigarettes on behalf of a tobacco company at a meeting with Dawud Salahuddin. Salahuddin, an American convert to Islam, fled to Iran after killing an Iranian diplomat from the shah-era government who had become a dissident.
U.S. law-enforcement officials had reached out to Salahuddin after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in an attempt to learn more about global terrorism and began a back-channel dialogue, during which Salahuddin discussed the possibility of returning to the U.S. and facing criminal charges.
As the AP later reported, Levinson’s cigarette-counterfeiting investigation was a cover for his work as a contractor at the CIA, and his meeting with Salahuddin was part of an attempt to turn him into an informant for the agency. Levinson disappeared after the meeting, only to surface in proof-of-life videos and a photograph received in 2010 and 2011.
In the images, a gaunt Levinson pleads for help from the U.S. government to “answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years” while making no mention of the “group” holding him or his whereabouts. In the subsequent photos, Levinson appeared in an orange prison jumpsuit holding signs with “help me” and “why you can not help me” printed on them.
Levinson’s family waged a 13-year search for him until the Trump administration told family members in 2020 that intelligence indicated Levinson had likely died in Iranian custody at some point prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported.
Iran has denied holding Levinson in detention or any connection to Levinson’s disappearance.