WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said American diplomats used a meeting with Iranian counterparts to press for the release of Americans detained in Iran.
It’s the first public acknowledgment of direct US-Iranian discussions since President Donald Trump took office.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was pushing for the return of Robert Levinson, a Jewish former FBI agent who vanished in Iran in 2007 and whom Iran has said it will help locate.
“Iran committed to cooperating with the United States in bringing Bob home and we call on Iran to fulfill this commitment,” he said in a statement. “The United States remains unwavering in its efforts to return Bob to his family.”
He also cited the detentions of Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father, Baquer Namazi.
The two were convicted in October 2016 of “cooperating with the hostile American government” and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“The United States is deeply concerned about reports of their declining health and well-being in detention,” Toner said. “The United States urges Iran to immediately release Siamak and Baquer on humanitarian grounds.”
Toner said the talks occurred on the sidelines of a meeting in Vienna this week focusing on implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
According to the FBI, Levinson, 69, is the “longest-held hostage in American history.”
Last month, his family pushed for a meeting with Trump over efforts to help locate him. At a campaign rally in 2015, Trump vowed to bring back Levinson. He also criticized the Obama administration for not linking the Iranian nuclear deal to Levinson’s return.
Iran claims to not know the whereabouts of Levinson.
Levinson disappeared during a trip to Iran’s Kish Island on March 9, 2007. A 2013 Associated Press investigation found he was working for the CIA on an unauthorized intelligence-gathering mission to find information about Iran’s nuclear program. US officials have said they are no longer certain he remains in the country.
The 2013 AP investigation showed that in a breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from hotspots around the world, including the Middle East and Latin America.
The official story when Levinson disappeared was that he was in Iran on private business, either to investigate cigarette smuggling or to work on a book about Russian organized crime. It has a presence on Kish, a tourist island.
In fact, he was meeting a source, an American fugitive, Dawud Salahuddin. He is wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. In interviews, Salahuddin has admitted killing the diplomat.
The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to preempt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders. Three analysts who had been working with Levinson lost their jobs.