President Barack Obama on Sunday celebrated the release of Americans held prisoner in Iran and said Tehran had agreed to help in efforts to find Jewish American Robert Levinson, who went missing in the Islamic Republic nearly a decade ago.
“Iran has agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson, missing from Iran for more than 8 years,” Obama said in a statement from the White House. “Even as we rejoice in the safe return for others we will never forget about Bob. Each and every day, and especially today, our hearts are with the Levinson family. We will not rest until their family is whole again.”
Levinson, 68, of Coral Springs, Florida, has been missing for close to nine years.
His family has acknowledged in recent years that Levinson, a father of seven, had been working for the CIA in a rogue operation at the time of his disappearance from Iran’s Kish Island. His mission was not authorized by top CIA brass. Iran denies official involvement in his disappearance.
Levinson was not among five Americans released by Iran Sunday as part of a swap deal that was announced alongside the implementation of the nuclear deal. CNN quoted Levinson’s family as expressing happiness for the other families, but saying it was “devastated” that he was not among those released.
Speaking Sunday, Obama heralded obtaining freedom for the prisoners who were released and also the full implementation of a historic nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic, holding both up as victories for “smart” diplomacy and his pledge to deal directly with enemies of the United States.
“This is a good day,” he said. “When Americans are freed and returned to their families, that’s something we can all celebrate.”
The president spoke at the close of an extraordinary weekend of diplomacy that saw the back-to-back release of the five Americans and the lifting of billions in international sanctions on Iran as part of the nuclear accord.
New sanctions imposed
Yet underscoring the strain that continues to exist between the US and Iran, the Obama administration also announced new penalties Sunday on 11 individuals and entities involved in Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
“We will continue to enforce these sanctions vigorously,” Obama said. “We are going to remain vigilant about it.”
For Obama, the diplomatic breakthroughs are a validation of his early promises to deal directly with nations such as Iran. The US and Iran broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 hostage-taking at the US Embassy in Tehran.
“America can do — and has done — big things when we work together,” Obama said. “We can lead this world and make it safer and more secure.”
The nuclear talks have brought a sense of normalcy to relations with the .. and Iran, with top officials from each country in somewhat regular communication. But Obama emphasized that the US continues to have deep concerns about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East and its threats to Israel.
“We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior elsewhere,” Obama said, “including its threats against Israel and our Gulf partners, and its support for violent proxies in places like Syria and Yemen.”
Obama spoke shortly after the Americans began their journey home. A charter plane left Tehran for Switzerland with the Americans — all four who had been detained, according to Iran state television, or only three, the US said — as part of a prisoner swap.
Within hours of their release, the US imposed sanctions against those involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program as a result of Tehran’s firing of a medium-range ballistic missile.
UN experts said in a report in December that the missile test in October violated sanctions banning Iran from launches capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
A US Treasury Department official said Iran’s ballistic missile program poses “a significant threat to regional and global security.”