US sanctions two Iranian intelligence officers in FBI abduction

US officials say the two Iranians are directly involved in the probable death of ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson.

Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent went missing on Iran's Gulf island Kish in March 2007 [File: via AFP]

The Trump administration announced on Monday new sanctions on two Iranians, blaming them for their “direct involvement” in the 2007 abduction and probable death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson.

The US Treasury Department sanctions against Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, two intelligence officers from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, “are the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable for the abduction of Mr Levinson, the longest-held US hostage ever”, a senior US official said.

“The individuals designated today … acted in their capacity as MOIS officers in the abduction, detention, and probable death of Mr Levinson,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

Levinson disappeared on March 9, 2007, when he was set to meet a source on Iran’s Kish Island. In March of this year, the US government concluded that he “may have passed” while in Iran’s custody and Levinson’s family announced his death.

“The government of Iran pledged to provide assistance in bringing [Robert] 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,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Monday.

Wray’s assessment of Levinson’s disappearance is the most direct and definitive statements from the US government about Iran’s involvement to date. Speaking to reporters, a senior US official would not detail “how we came to the conclusion and designated these two individuals”.

Levinson’s family received a video in late 2010 as well as proof-of-life photographs in 2011 in which he appeared dishevelled with a long beard and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit like those given to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, The Associated Press news agency reported. Even then, his whereabouts and fate were not known, and the Iran government has persistently denied having any information about Levinson.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Washington held Iran liable for his disappearance, saying the country was “in no uncertain terms” responsible for Levinson’s “hostage-taking and torture”.

In November 2019, the Iranian government unexpectedly responded to a United Nations query by saying Levinson was the subject of an “open case” in Iranian Revolutionary Court, the AP reported. Although the development gave the family a burst of hope, Iran clarified that the “open case” was simply an investigation into his disappearance.

Monday’s sanctions are part of what is reported to be a “flood” of sanctions on Iran during President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office.

Axios reported last month that the Trump administration believes heaping sanctions on Iran “will increase pressure on the Iranians and make it harder for the Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal”, citing Israeli sources.

A senior US official told reporters that Monday’s sanctions were not done for political reasons but because “we take our actions based on the information available”.

“[T]here is no there’s nothing really to read into the timing of it. It is independent of any other decisions and discussions. It is strictly based on our obtaining the information and processing them accordingly and holding the Iranians accountable,” the official said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday “strongly” condemned Iran’s execution on Saturday of kidnapped journalist Ruhollah Zam.

“The US strongly condemns Iran’s unjust, barbaric execution of Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist kidnapped abroad by the regime,” Pompeo tweeted. “Zam exposed the brutality and corruption of the regime, which has killed or arrested more than 860 journalists in its 41-year reign of terror.”

Zam, an exiled online journalist who is credited for helping inspire the 2017 economic protests in Iran, was tricked by Iranian intelligence operatives into travelling to Iraq last year where he was kidnapped. An Iranian court later convicted him and sentenced him to death for what it called “corruption on Earth”, a charge often used in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow the government, the AP reported.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies