Bleak outlook for former FBI agent held in Iran

Robert Levison’s family will undoubtedly have to rely on the Iranian or Pakistani government to secure his release.

Ahmadinejad and Gillani
Media attention could pressure Iran’s government, headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into negotiating a release [EPA]

On December 9, the family of Robert Levinson, who vanished over four years ago in Iran, prompted renewed media coverage of his disappearance by posting a previously undisclosed video statement made by the former FBI agent while in captivity. The video illustrates the toll the ordeal has taken on Mr Levinson and raises new inquiries into where he is currently being held (either Iran or Pakistan).

Although the family received the tape in 2010, they declined to previously make it public in order to safeguard the ongoing investigation aimed at securing his release. The question, then, is: Why is the family choosing to release the video now?

It is clear that the decision was not triggered by improving relations between Iran and the West.

With headlines reading, “Has a War with Iran Already Begun?”, the diplomatic gulf between the West and Iran has only widened.

In recent months, tensions have only escalated. There have been reports of suspicious blasts rocking the country’s nuclear and missile programs. These incidents follow high-profile assassinations of Iranian scientists associated with the alleged nuclear weapons programme, as well as the well-known Stuxnet incident, which targeted an Iranian nuclear facility. Nevertheless, the West alleges that Iran continues to advance its nuclear weapon ambitions.

The situation further deteriorated over the two weeks preceding the video’s release. On November 29, the British embassy compound was violently overrun. Then, on December 4, Iran reportedly recovered one of the United States’ most advanced unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft. Media later confirmed that the unmanned aerial vehicle was lost conducting a secret mission over Iranian airspace, and may have been downed by the Iranian military.

Against this backdrop, the tone and substance of international media coverage shifted. In the days leading up to the release, high-profile articles started to appear in major international publications describing a possible covert campaign by the West against Iran. With headlines reading, “Has a War with Iran Already Begun?”, the diplomatic gulf between the West and Iran has only widened.

Pakistani relations sour

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have fared no better.

While relations between the two “partners” have never been ideal, bilateral relations nearly collapsed earlier this year. The spring 2011 operation which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden marked an inflection point for both parties. Soon after that covert mission became public, Pakistan demanded a major reduction in US government postings to Pakistan and sought to further restrict US military operations within Pakistani airspace. The US responded by reducing foreign aid and launching new accusations against Pakistani intelligence services.

Then, on November 26, NATO attacked a Pakistani military outpost located within Pakistani sovereign territory under contested circumstances. Whatever the underlying reasons for the attack, the result was the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers and the ire of an entire nation. This led to a further deterioration in the US-Pakistan relationship in the days leading up to the video’s release.

With the probability that Western diplomatic channels would be able to secure Mr Levinson’s release plummeting, the family appears to have made the call on December 9 that they had little to gamble by breaking their silence. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the family’s move will help secure Mr Levinson’s release.

As the captors have been unwilling to reveal their identity and purpose for holding Mr Levinson, few experts believe that the family’s plea for the captors to list their set of demands will lead to a response. If it does, then perhaps progress towards his release may be made. But, it is far more likely that the family will have to rely on the Iranian or Pakistani government to make contact with the captors and secure his release.

It is unlikely that Islamabad wants to be drawn into the larger regional conflict between the West and Iran. It has enough on its hands with Western engagement in Af-Pak.

This makes it imperative to examine how the video’s release could incentivise both countries to take action.

International pressure

For example, in the case of Iran, the family’s best hope may be that renewed international media attention will pressure Tehran to reconsider the cost/benefit of Mr Levinson’s ongoing detention and follow through on the country’s 2010 commitment to assist the US investigation into Mr Levinson’s disappearance. The likelihood of this scenario unfolding would be greatly increased if international media coverage generated support for Mr Levinson’s cause among Iran’s allies and trading partners.

On the other hand, if Mr Levinson is being held in Pakistan, international media attention is helping to create wider awareness for the possible connection between this case and Pakistan. Despite the ongoing bilateral rift between the West and Pakistan, it is unlikely that Islamabad wants to be drawn into the larger regional conflict between the West and Iran. It has enough on its hands with Western engagement in Af-Pak. As a result, the government will not be keen to being seen as enabling the ongoing detention of a US citizen who was captured in Iran. This could encourage the Pakistanis to take matters into their own hands and work to locate Mr Levinson.

That said, there are convincing counterpoints to each of these scenarios that suggest it is unlikely that either Iran or Pakistan will cooperate until there is a serious improvement in relations with the West. For example, many Iranian moderates strongly condemn Western violations of their sovereignty and Pakistan must contend with a public who does not want their government aiding Western forces caught violating state sovereignty. Neither of these factors makes the governments particularly conducive to partnering with the US on a joint investigation at this time.

In the meantime, there is little doubt that the United States government is working hard behind the scenes to try to identify where he is being held and secure his release. Unfortunately, both Iran and Pakistan present formable challenges for such an investigation, let alone unilateral action. The US also is unlikely to be willing to jeopardise progress on key national security objectives, such as nonproliferation, simply to secure the release of a single American citizen. The Levinson family therefore cannot put too much faith in the US government rescuing Mr Levinson from Iran or Pakistan.

For these reasons, Mr Levinson’s release remains tightly linked to the resolution of larger regional security issues with Iran and Pakistan. While unfortunate, this appears to be the consequence of being a pawn in the high-stakes competition for power and influence currently underway in Southwest Asia.

Eddie Walsh is an accomplished foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He currently serves as a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, where he is researching mutual deterrence for his next book project.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.