Kenneth R. Timmerman
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Iranian intelligence service is believed to have abducted a former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, while he was meeting an Iranian contact at the Persian Gulf resort on Kish island.
The reason? Iran wants to force a trade with the United States for a former top Iranian military official, Brig. Gen. Alireza Asghari, whom the Iranians think may have applied for asylum in the United States, according to refugee documents made available to NewsMax.
Asghari left Iran on an officially-sanctioned trip to Damascus, Syria, then went missing during a stop-over in Istanbul on Feb. 7. His whereabouts remains unknown.
His disappearance created a panic in Tehran because he had access to highly classified intelligence information on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, and had personally run several ballistic missile development programs, as Newsmax reported last month.
“Might he know something of interest to the United States? Yes, given his background,” a U.S. official said.
Speculation that he defected to a foreign intelligence service began when it was announced that his family had also fled Iran.
When asked about the Iranian’s whereabouts last month, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung replied cryptically, “I cannot say anything on this subject,” giving rise to speculation that the former Iranian official was being questioned by German intelligence.
Where Is Levinson?
Meanwhile, the State Department has launched several inquiries about Levinson’s whereabouts through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran and through other foreign governments, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday.
While not calling Levinson a “hostage,” McCormack said that he could not rule out the possibility that he was in custody of the Iranian authorities. “I can’t rule it out. We don’t know where he is. As we have said before, we suspect that he is in Iran,” he said.
A copy of Gen. Asghari’s refugee status document, which was dated Jan. 25, 2007, was provided to NewsMax by Pooya Dayanim, an Iranian-American activist in California.
“I received these documents from generally reliable sources in a European country. They wanted to lay to rest this notion that Asghari was in U.S. custody, so the Iranian regime could demand some kind of exchange,” he said.
“In the one case, you have an American who has been kidnapped,” he added. “In the other, you’ve got an Iranian who left Iran of his own free will.”
U.S. government officials in a position to know about Asghari rejected the notion of a “swap” with the Iranian regime for Levinson.
“We can’t swap him because we don’t have him, period,” one official said. “We don’t know anything about where he might be. To say that he defected to the United States is just flat-out wrong.”
Another official said he doubted that Asghari had applied for refugee status, because he would have to demonstrate to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees that he had been persecuted before leaving Iran.
While acknowledging that a number of Iranian human rights activists were seeking asylum in the United States, he said that Asghari was not among them.
In Iranian news accounts that have appeared so far, Asghari is said to be 63 years old, but so far Iranian papers have not published his photograph.
CIA? FBI? MIA
The picture on the refugee documents provided to NewsMax by Dayanim shows a man who looks appears to be in his 40s.
The Iranian regime has floated wild rumors about both missing men, in an effort to spark U.S. government interest.
The Entekhab daily newspaper on Tuesday quoted an “informed source” in Tehran who claimed that Levinson had been spying on Iran’s behalf for several years, adding that the CIA had indicated it wanted to exchange Levinson with Asghari.
A source with access to top officials within Revolutionary Guards intelligence said they concluded that Levinson was a “big fish who can be used to create maximum damage to CIA operations against Iran.”
Levinson has never worked for the CIA but was a career FBI agent, so it’s unclear why the Revolutionary Guards came to such a conclusion.
The same source reported that Levinson is being held in a safe house in the Tajrish area of Tehran that is “operated jointly” by the Ministry of Information and Security and the Revolutionary Guards intelligence department.
The Financial Times newspaper reported last month that Levinson had traveled from Dubai to Kish Island, less than an hour’s flight away, to meet with David Belfield, an American who fled to Iran in 1980 after assassinating an Iranian diplomat from the shah’s regime in Bethesda, Maryland.
Belfield has acknowledged that he met with Levinson on Kish Island. “Some people know exactly where he is,” Belfield said. “He came only to see me.”
Belfield, who has admitted to the 1980 murder of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, told the Financial Times that Levinson had come to Kish “to find a channel to introduce him to authorities in Tehran to help him find out about networks involved in smuggling of cigarettes, because his contractor company has been losing a lot of money.”
Levinon has worked for a private investigative firm since retiring from the FBI 10 years ago, and is a specialist in Russian organized crime, not the Middle East.
So far, the Iranian authorities have told the State Department that they have no information about Levinson, McCormack said. “I find that hard to believe,” he added.
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