WASHINGTON The United States believes Iran could be holding a former FBI agent who has been missing since March, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Monday but gave no evidence to support the statement.
Florida resident and ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing early in March while on a visit to the Gulf island of Kish in Iran. U.S. officials have said they believe he is in Iran but they have no credible information about his exact whereabouts. It is not clear why Levinson visited Iran.
"In the absence of any other explanation you have to start considering other possibilities and that is that certainly it is possible he is being held," said the official, who spoke on condition he not be named.
The comment appeared designed to raise pressure on Iran to try to find out what became of Levinson as well as frustration that so far Tehran has provided no information about him.
Diplomats fear the case could mark a new twist in apparent tit-for-tat detentions involving the United States, Britain and Iran, which began with the detention by U.S. forces in Iraq of five Iranians in January and Iran's capture of 15 British sailors who were freed earlier this month.
Earlier this month, the Financial Times newspaper reported Levinson was being held by Iranian authorities. However, Iran's intelligence minister was quoted by a news agency on Sunday as saying Iran is not holding him but is investigating the case.
The United States over the weekend made a fresh request to Iran for information about Levinson and, in its note, pointed to unconfirmed media reports that Iran may be holding him.
"We are ratcheting it up," said the U.S. official. "We laid it out for them and said check these out."
Because it does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the United States has delivered its messages via Switzerland.
The United States cut ties with Iran in April 1980, five months after Iranian students occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and took U.S. citizens hostage. Fifty-two Americans were ultimately held for 444 days.