WASHINGTON — In 1979, 66 Americans began 444 days of captivity as victims of the Islamic Revolution, and Jimmy Carter’s presidency would fall victim to his handling of the protracted crisis.
Today, a solemn milestone was reached in an Iran hostage crisis that has lasted longer than President Obama’s time in office.
Robert Levinson, a 65-year-old retired FBI agent and father of seven, was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements, when he disappeared on March 8, 2007.
Today, Levinson became the longest held U.S. hostage in history, passing Terry Anderson’s 2,454 days in captivity at the hands of Hezbollah before being freed in 1991.
“As we approach the upcoming holiday season, we reiterate the commitment of the United States Government to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home safely to his family, friends, and loved ones,” the White House said in a brief statement this morning, acknowledging Levinson was “one of the longest held Americans in history.”
“We welcome the assistance of our international partners in this investigation, and we respectfully ask the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to assist us in securing Mr. Levinson’s health, welfare, and safe return,” said the statement from press secretary Jay Carney.
By now, the administration has conceded that discussion about Levinson — and two more Americans being unjustly held by Iran, Marine Corps veteran Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini — was at the most a sideline conversation at the P5+1 talks in Geneva and the three men were not included in conditions under which sanctions would be peeled back.
“The negotiations that we’re having through the P5-plus-1 with Iran are related strictly to Iran’s nuclear program and the importance of Iran bringing that nuclear program into compliance with their international obligations,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters today during Obama’s fundraising swing through L.A.
“However, as we mentioned at the time, the president when he telephoned President Rouhani earlier this fall specifically raised the case of Mr. Levinson, who was last seen in Iran. The president asked President Rouhani for his assistance in locating Mr. Levinson and determining his well-being.”
Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dropped a hint about Levinson and basically acknowledged he was in their custody or within their grasp in a September 2012 interview with CBS. “I remember that last year Iranian and American intelligence groups had a meeting, but I haven’t followed up on it,” he said. “I thought they’d come to some kind of an agreement.”
When asked if there had been any progress in locating Levinson, Earnest said today, “Nothing that I’m able to report at this point.”
Levinson’s wife, Christine, though, has reported her frustration from years of trying to push the administration to get her husband home. After releasing in January photos the family had received from his captors, Christine Levinson said she’d gone to the press with the pictures, received nearly two years earlier, because “there isn’t any pressure on Iran to resolve this.”
“No one would have predicted this terrible moment more than six and a half years ago when Bob disappeared,” she said today. “Our family will soon gather for our seventh Thanksgiving without Bob, and the pain will be almost impossible to bear. Yet, as we endure this terrible nightmare from which we can not wake, we know that we must bear it for Bob, the most extraordinary man we have ever known.”
“To whoever is holding Bob, I ask again for your mercy. Please let him go to reunite with his family.”
Washington has admitted they believe the government of Iran knows more than it claims, and even tried some PR antics in 2011 to deflect blame from Tehran in hopes that the regime would free him. In August 2012, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland released a statement marking Levinson’s 2,000th day in captivity.
“The United States reiterates its call on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to provide any information on Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts and to help ensure his prompt and safe return to his family,” Nuland said. “Determining Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts and reuniting him safely with his family continues to be a priority for the U.S. Government. The United States also continues to welcome the assistance of our international partners in this investigation.”
Just last year, the FBI offered a $1 million reward for information on Levinson’s whereabouts.
The family even tried a White House petition last December in an effort to cross the threshold needed for an administration response.
Levinson’s eldest son, Dan, wrote today in the Washington Post that the “cryptic messages” his father is forced to hold in the hostage pictures hold meaning they “still do not understand,” but “what we do understand is that the Iranian government takes great pride in its security efforts.”
U.S. officials reportedly told the Associated Press in January that they believe the Iranian government is behind the hostage photos and video emailed to the family.
“This is not how it was supposed to be. My father is 65, my mother 63. These are the years when my parents were supposed to be enjoying the fruits of their labor. They should be taking vacations and visiting their grandchildren. Instead, my mother is constantly on the phone with U.S. officials and pleading with the Iranian government to help us,” he wrote.
“Given the negotiations between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, we particularly hope that officials can use their ongoing contact to resolve my father’s case. Doing so would show the world that our two countries can work together to resolve our differences and would demonstrate Iran’s willingness to help an average American family’s plight.”