The Trump administration announced sanctions on two Iranian officials for their involvement in the 2007 disappearance and presumed death of the former F.B.I. agent Robert Levinson, the first time the U.S. government has officially implicated Iran’s government in Mr. Levinson’s case.
The Treasury Department said in a statement that it was imposing sanctions on two officials in Iran’s Interior Ministry, Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, who it said were “involved in the abduction, detention and probable death of Mr. Levinson.” U.S. officials said they had obtained new information about their involvement in what they called Mr. Levinson’s abduction, but they would not provide further details.
The sanctions freeze any property the Iranians hold in the United States, and subject to penalties any non-American people or entities that engage in financial transactions with them.
Mr. Levinson, who would be 72 years old, disappeared under mysterious circumstances off Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007 while on an unauthorized mission for the Central Intelligence Agency. He was last seen alive in a hostage video nearly a decade ago pleading for help and in photographs in which he wore an orange prison jumpsuit. The Iranian government has never admitted a role in his disappearance.
U.S. officials have long believed that Iran’s government was responsible, and concluded in March that Mr. Levinson had died in Iranian captivity, his family said at the time.
“Robert Levinson will never come home to his family alive because of the cruel, cynical and inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities,” his family said Monday in a statement. “Because of these men and others like them, our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved. This is just one step in a long road toward achieving justice for him, but it is an important one.”
“No matter how long it takes, we will find the individuals who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, and we will hold them accountable,” the statement added.
Mr. Baseri and Mr. Khazai are unlikely to have significant property in the United States, but the new sanctions could imperil their ability to conduct transactions elsewhere outside Iran.
In a sign that the sanctions may have been intended to further complicate the incoming Biden administration’s plans to restore some version of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew, a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on Monday said that any future agreement with Iran should require that all Americans held in the country be freed.
Any such impact would be symbolic. The Biden administration could easily reverse Monday’s sanctions and is not bound to make the release of prisoners a condition for negotiations.
Three Iranian-Americans remain in Iranian captivity: Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer, and Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British citizenship. U.S. officials believe that Iran routinely arrests and imprisons American citizens as diplomatic bargaining chips.
In November 2019, Iran said that it had an open court case related to Mr. Levinson but did not provide further detail. Iran’s foreign ministry has said that Mr. Levinson left the country years ago for an unspecified destination. Both the Treasury Department’s statement and another statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that Iran’s government had started a “disinformation campaign” to deflect blame from itself.
“With this announcement, the United States government is initiating the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable for the abduction of Robert Levinson — the longest ever held American hostage,” the Trump administration said in a statement.
“Since the beginning of this administration,” the statement continued, “President Trump has made it clear that Iran will be held accountable for its use of detention and hostage taking as a tool of ‘diplomacy’ and that the United States will no longer accept Iranian excuses for what we know they have done to Mr. Levinson.”
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.