Tehran has said a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago had left the country a long time ago, despite his family saying a day earlier that he had died in Iranian custody.
Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in the Gulf in March 2007. The case is another irritant in the already hostile relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Levinson’s family said on Wednesday it now believed Levinson died in Iranian custody, based on information from US officials.
“Today with aching hearts, we are sharing devastating news about Robert Levinson, the head of our family,” they said in a statement.
However, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday, based on what he called credible evidence, Levinson had left Iran “years ago” for an unspecified destination.
“In the past years Iran has tried to find out his state but could not find any signs of him being alive,” spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to state television.
Reuters news agency had reported in 2013 that Levinson, a private detective and former FBI agent, was investigating allegations of corruption by well-connected people in Iran.
Lawyer David McGee had then said Levinson was trying to trace money laundered through Iranian exiles living in Toronto.
US officials had acknowledged to Reuters that Levinson had a relationship with the CIA as a source at the time he visited Kish Island and disappeared.
A video released in 2011 showed him pleading for help. It did not say who was holding him or where.
Tehran denied knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts last November, when it said a legal case involving him was under way at a revolutionary court that handles security-related cases.
“Iran has always maintained that its officials have no knowledge of Mr Levinson’s whereabouts, and that he is not in Iranian custody. Those facts have not changed,” the spokesman for Iran’s mission at the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, said on Thursday.
US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had not been told that Levinson was dead.
But White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said later that an investigation was still going on but “we believe that Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago”.
Levinson’s family said in their statement: “We recently received information from US officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody.”
They said they did not know when or how he died but that it was before the coronavirus epidemic hit Iran. Nor did they know if Levinson’s body would ever be returned to them.
O’Brien said Iran must provide a complete accounting of what happened to Levinson. Levinson disappeared after flying from Dubai to Kish in 2007. There he met with Daoud Salahuddin, an American “militant” who fled to Iran while facing charges in the murder of an Iranian embassy official based in Washington, DC.
Levinson, then a private investigator, was seeking information on alleged corruption involving former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family, sources familiar with his work said.
The Iranian government has never publicly acknowledged any role in Levinson’s abduction, though at the time of his disappearance a government-affiliated media outlet had said he was “in the hands of Iranian security forces”.
Some US investigators, at least until recently, believed Levinson was still alive, while officials at other US agencies believe he died perhaps years ago.
The US and the Islamic republic are longtime foes. Washington opposes Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and backs its regional rival Saudi Arabia. They also support opposing sides in wars in Yemen and Syria.
Washington also maintains tough economic sanctions on Iran. In 2018, Trump pulled the US out of an international agreement which curbed Iran’s nuclear programme.