President Donald Trump “won’t accept” that retired FBI agent Robert Levinson is dead, contradicting claims by the Levinson family at a Wednesday press conference.
Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, a slice of Iranian territory open to visa-free travel, on March 9, 2007. Only a few details of Levinson’s status have emerged since then, but the coronavirus crisis in Iran has put a spotlight on American prisoners held by the Islamic Republic. This interest may have put to rest America’s longest-running hostage mystery.
“We recently received information from U.S. officials that have led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody,” the Levinson family wrote in a Wednesday social media statement. “We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien confirmed that Levinson “may have passed away some time ago” late on Wednesday, but the President qualified that statement.
“It’s not looking great, but I won’t accept that he’s dead,” he said at a Wednesday conference.
Iran also denied that Levinson had died in its custody. The Foreign Ministry claimed that it had “credible evidence” that the American “left Iran years ago for an unspecified destination” in a statement to the press.
It is believed that Levinson was captured by elements of the Iranian government while on a mission for a group of rogue CIA analysts. He was last seen alive in a 2011 hostage tape, although Iran told the United Nations last year that it had an “ongoing case” against Levinson in a court that handles sensitive national security affairs.
The U.S. Department of State claimed in 2018 that Iran had committed to helping find Levinson, but the Iranian foreign ministry later denied making this commitment.
“Bob Levinson should have spent his last moments surrounded by his family and all the love we feel for him,” his family stated. “Instead, he died alone, in captivity thousands of miles away, in unbelievable suffering.”
It is unclear why U.S. officials believe that Levinson is dead. One senior official told the New York Times that the assessment was based on “a range of information, including intercepted Iranian communications,” but the Associated Press reported that the information came directly from Iran’s foreign ministry.
Both the New York Times and the Associated Press said that the Levinson family had been informed by the White House in recent weeks.
U.S. officials have pressed the Iranian government over the fate of its American prisoners because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Iran, which has killed at least 2,234 people.
“Any nation considering whether to provide Iran with humanitarian assistance because of COVID-19 should seek a reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the regime: release all wrongly detained dual and foreign national citizens,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on March 10.
Iran granted Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran convicted of insulting Iran’s leaders, a medical furlough along with 70,000 other prisoners last week.
When asked by the National Interest, the State Department did not comment on the number of Americans it believes are wrongfully held in Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. But a statement on White’s furlough by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus named four American prisoners.
“We again call on the Iranian government to immediately release on humanitarian grounds Morad Tahbaz, Baquer Namazi, and Siamak Namazi,” Ortagus said on March 19. “We also ask the regime to honor the commitment it made to work with the United States for the return of Robert Levinson.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest.