In a final transaction before the US lifted long-standing sanctions on Iran, the two nations completed a high-profile prisoner swap Saturday.
The US received four dual-nationality men held in Iran — including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and a student held 40 days — in exchange for seven people who were charged with violating the now-lifted sanctions against Iran, according to The Associated Press.
Yet, one American who went missing in Iran more than eight years ago was not included in the swap.
That man is former FBI agent Robert Levinson, whose family said in a weekend statement that they’re “devastated.” They added Tuesday they’re “desperate for answers,” Reuters reported.
Levinson disappeared during a visit to Iran’s Kish Island in 2007. His family said in 2013 he was working as a freelance “spy” for a rogue CIA operation at the time. That came after six years of US officials claiming he was on the island working as a private investigator. US officials also believed that Levinson, 67, who was a diabetic, died in captivity after apparently meeting with an American-born Islamic militant on the island.
The CIA even launched an internal investigation into Levinson’s relationship with its analytical division, which was deemed to be unauthorised. Three officials within the intelligence organisation lost their jobs, with several more disciplined as a result, according to Reuters.
Iran has denied for years that it knew anything about Levinson’s whereabouts, a claim that both US officials and his family have repeatedly refuted.
Levinson served more than two decades in the FBI, which has a $5 million reward out for information leading to his location, according to Reuters.
Obama made mention of Levinson in his Sunday speech celebrating the prisoner release when he said the government would “not rest” until Levinson is found. Senior administration officials told reporters in a conference call over the weekend that there had been some “progress” made on Levinson’s case.
“We’ve also agreed to continue a dialogue with Iran through multiple channels for missing persons, in particularly for Bob Levinson,” one senior official said. “And we made some progress in that case, but that’s a case that we are never going to quit and never going to give up on, and he’s central to our minds every single day. And we’re going to continue to do everything we possibly can to find Bob and bring him home.”
Also on Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote on Twitter that Iran would work more closely with the US to find Levinson.
Iran also agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson. We won’t rest until the Levinson family is whole again.
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) January 18, 2016
Levinson’s family is highly sceptical of the White House’s assurances. They said they have been “betrayed” — not only because he wasn’t included in the prisoner swap, but also because no one from the White House notified them about the impending exchange in advance, according to ABC News. They learned of it on TV.
“I thought after nine years that they would have enough respect for our family to at least tell us in advance that this is happening,” Levinson’s wife, Christine, told ABC News. “It could have been five minutes, but to find out on the TV for the whole family … was wrong. It was absolutely devastating.”
Kerry told CNN he feels “horrible” for the family.
“I know it’s very, very difficult for his family to see these other people come back and to not have answers,” he said.
On Monday, Sarah Moriarty, one of Levinson’s seven children, wrote a column for CNN detailing her family’s despair.
We are happy for their families. We shared their pain. But this news deeply hurts. And we can’t hold back our devastation, let alone our anger, any longer.
Over the past 3,237 days (at this writing) of my father’s captivity, my family has witnessed the kidnapping in Iran and subsequent U.S. negotiation for release of Haleh Esfandiari, Parnaz Azima, Ali Shakeri, Kian Tajbakhsh, Roxana Saberi, hikers Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, the 10 American sailors released last week within 24 hours, and now, these individuals.
Always, always we have trusted our government officials. Listening to them when they tell us they are doing all they can. Waiting desperately for the next meeting update, the next glimmer of hope, the next call to action we can take so it can be our turn to celebrate our father’s return. But now we have reached our breaking point. We are crushed and outraged.
She added her family knows there are people within the US government losing sleep over the case, and that her family is “deeply grateful” and means “no offence to them.”
Robert Levinson is an American patriot; he has given everything in his life for his family and for his country. He worked for the FBI for 22 years and another six for the Drug Enforcement Agency, risking his life to help bring down the Mafia, Colombian cartels and the Russian mob. He loves and cares about his country so much that he felt compelled to continue his work for the government after retirement, this time as a CIA contractor.
The U.S. government still has not acknowledged that this work is what brought him to Kish Island, Iran, in the first place.
Iran’s promise to continue cooperating is not enough. The official version is that no one knows where my father is being held and by whom. But my family believes Iran knows exactly where my father is and that our government is aware of this.
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