Missing American feared a victim of ‘dirty war’
By Guy Dinmore in Washington and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
Just why Robert Levinson, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and now private investigator, should venture into Iran to meet a American fugitive wanted for murder in the US remains a mystery that the highest Bush administration authorities are trying to unravel.
As the Financial Times revealed this week, Mr Levinson disappeared on March 8 after a six-hour meeting on the Iranian island of Kish with Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and was recruited by revolutionaries to assassinate an Iranian opposition activist near Washington in 1980.
Friends of Mr Levinson are mystified that he took the risk of travelling for such a meeting. They fear he is the victim of a sting operation by Iranian secret services engaged in an escalating “dirty war” between the US and Iran, involving hostage-taking and covert cross- border operations.
Mr Salahuddin, who fled to Iran after the 1980 murder and has at times expressed interest in returning to the US to face justice, told the FT in Tehran that he, too, feared Mr Levinson was an “innocent victim” of the clash between what he calls Iran’s paranoia about the US and Washington’s misguided foreign policy.
Mr Salahuddin said they registered a room in the Maryam hotel before he, too, was detained that night but released the next day after his Iranian passport was checked. Mr Levinson has not been heard from since. Iran’s foreign ministry says it does not know where he is. The US believes he is in detention.
Although it was the first meeting of the two men, Mr Salahuddin and Mr Levinson had been in contact for some time and they share contacts.
Mr Levinson is 59. His long career in and out of the FBI focused on counternarcotics and organised crime, mostly Russian.
British American Tobacco told the FT it had employed Mr Levinson through Bishop International security consultancy to take on cigarette smuggling/counterfeiting work in South America. But BAT denied an assertion by Mr Salahuddin that Mr Levinson had been contracted to work for them in the Middle East. “Our discussions had nothing to do with money but operational procedures and how to approach the officials in Tehran [about cigarette smuggling],” Mr Salahuddin said.
Over the years, Mr Salahuddin – who goes by the name of Hassan Abdulrahman in Iran, where he is married to an Iranian and works as an editor – developed an intense relationship over the telephone with Carl Shoffler, a legendary Washington DC police detective.
Mr Shoffler, who died in 1996, followed the 1980 murder file and tried to persuade Mr Salahuddin to return to the US. Mr Salahuddin says he nearly did. In the meantime he helped Mr Shoffler liaise with an Iranian criminal investigator on tracking down drug smugglers bringing heroin from Afghanistan through Iran and on to the west. Mr Levinson shared those same interests.
There is another theory for Mr Levinson’s journey to Kish – a possible media connection. In 2002, Ira Silverman, a former NBC chief investigative producer, went to Tehran to meet Mr Salahuddin and wrote about him in the New Yorker magazine. He noted that his capture “would be a triumph for law enforcement”, but also argued that “from an intelligence perspective” he would be “more useful left in place” because of his access to the inner circles in Iran .
Mr Silverman was also a friend of Mr Levinson and Mr Shoffler. Acquaintances believe he introduced Mr Levinson to the fugitive with a documentary in mind. Mr Silverman declined to be interviewed for this article.
A US official, who asked not to be named, said US authorities also suspected that Mr Levinson was on a media mission. He did not name Mr Silverman…