By The Free Iranian Staff
The case of Robert Levinson, the retired American who was seized in Iran over 12 years ago, has once again made headline news for the past few days. After U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo increased the reward for information about Levinson’s status to $25 million, the Khomeiniist regime responded with a cryptic statement that an “ongoing case” was proceeding against Levinson in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. This statement was taken by many, including U.S. President Donald Trump, as indicating that Tehran was finally admitting that Levinson was alive and in regime custody. However, the regime later added that the ongoing case was a “missing person’s” proceeding, and not a criminal case. As with many other developments in the Levinson saga, these regime statements are parts of a series of curious and suspicious facts relating to Levinson’s disappearance.
In an attempt to clarify these contradictory news stories, the Iranian attorney representing Levinson’s family, Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, gave interviews to Iranian diaspora media, but Aghassi’s words only caused more confusion. The attorney said that the Tehran prosecutor’s office had ordered Levinson’s missing person case “halted” last month, but that he had filed a complaint stating that the case cannot be concluded until testimony has been heard from David Belfield (Dawud Salahuddin), the last person known to have seen Levinson, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
David Belfield is a notorious African-American convert to Shi’a Islam who has been living in Iran since fleeing the US in 1980, after he killed Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former Iranian diplomat under the Shah’s government and opponent of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule. Robert Levinson had traveled to Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007 to meet with Belfield, for reasons that are still unclear. According to most reports, Levinson was investigating cigarette smuggling by Russian and Iranian organized crime gangs, under contract for the CIA. He was put in contact with Belfield by his friend Ira Silverman, a journalist who had interviewed the assassin for the New Yorker magazine in 2002. Why Levinson would have considered Belfield a possibly useful source of information is unknown. Other reports claim that Levinson was investigating money laundering by Khomeiniist regime leaders.
Belfield’s account of Levinson’s arrest is that, while the two men were talking at Kish’s Maryam Hotel, plainclothes IRGC officers burst in, seized both, separated them, and held Belfield in jail overnight before releasing him. This story seems farcical, because, judging by its history, if the IRGC had had any doubts about whether Belfield might possibly be giving information to American intelligence, or even just appearing to be, he would have been imprisoned if not executed. The fact that he remains free in Iran, and employed by the regime, implies that whatever he did on Kish was not seen as threatening by Tehran officials. Aghassi was later able to determine that Belfield was not jailed on the day he claimed to have been.
The regime has also protected Belfield from being forced to testify in court about Levinson. According to Aghassi, “I met this person (Belfield)…he made some contradictory statements.” “I conveyed this to the security agencies and the prosecutor’s office and told them that if they really want to find the truth, they should summon and question this person. Unfortunately, they ignored the matter for eight years and when the assistant prosecutor finally agreed to summon him, they said his address …had changed and they don’t have any other address for him. But a person who has taken asylum cannot move around in Iran without permission from legal authorities.” Aghassi had been trying to have Belfield questioned in court since 2009.
For his part, Belfield says he met Levinson out of “pure curiosity…I was just curious.” Others have questioned whether have may have lured Levinson to Kish as part of an IRGC sting operation. Aghassi has publicly stated that he considers Belfield “a suspect.”
In October 2009, Ebrahim Ali Mehtari, then a refugee in Turkey, contacted American diplomats and told them he had information about Levinson. Detained in August of that year for making political postings on Facebook, Mehtari said that in the IRGC prison, he saw “in the middle of the left side of his cell door frame there were three lines written in English with the name ‘B. Levinson’ written underneath. He said that at the time he did not know who Levinson was and only after his release did he use the search engine Google to find that Levinson was a missing American citizen.” The diplomats commented then that “Mehtari asked us for no favors, so we cannot speculate on why he informed us about Levinson.”
After that, photos and a video of Levinson begging for help were delivered anonymously to his family. At that time, the US and Tehran were said to be secretly negotiating Levinson’s release, despite Tehran’s public position that he wasn’t in Iran. Some CIA sources have alleged that Levinson was almost freed in 2011. The former agents claim that Tehran agreed to release him if the US would deny that Levinson had been held in Iran, but that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton botched the agreement by only saying that Levinson was in an unnamed southwestern Asian country, words that Tehran found unacceptable. If true, that would mean the Robert Levinson case was another foreign policy blunder of the Obama administration.
What is certain now is that, assuming he is alive, Levinson is being held by the IRGC. Aghassi carefully implied this in his recent interview, when he said “The fact that no information was released after the first eight or nine months [after Levinson’s disappearance] means that Mr. Levinson was not being held by the official government and it’s possible he was taken by other individuals…. It is my belief that the Intelligence Ministry and the government have no information. If perhaps he was arrested and held by the guards’ [IRGC’s] intelligence organization—in other words by a government within the government—I don’t know. No inquiry has been made to the Guards’ intelligence organization about Mr. Levinson’s fate”
It must be noted that Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, as a high-profile human rights and criminal defense attorney operating under the rules of the Islamic regime, is limited in what he can publicly say or do, by the legal structure of the regime. Other human rights lawyers, such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, who have gone beyond what the regime deems permissible, have themselves been imprisoned.