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Fugitive says he met missing ex-FBI agent in Iran

FINANCIAL TIMES [1]

An Amer­i­can fugi­tive liv­ing in Iran since he mur­dered an Iran­ian oppo­si­tion activist in the US in 1980 has revealed that he met a for­mer Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion agent short­ly before the lat­ter dis­ap­peared on the Iran­ian island of Kish a month ago.

US author­i­ties have been anx­ious­ly seek­ing infor­ma­tion about the for­mer agent, Robert Levin­son, for sev­er­al weeks. The Iran­ian for­eign min­istry says it is try­ing to clar­i­fy his where­abouts. US offi­cials sus­pect he is in Iran­ian deten­tion.

Euro­pean diplo­mats in Wash­ing­ton hes­i­tate to describe Mr Levin­son as a “hostage”, say­ing details of his case remain murky.

They are con­cerned that the US, Britain and Iran are stum­bling into a new­phase of tit-for-tat pris­on­er-tak­ing that was kicked off when the US detained five Iran­ian offi­cials in Iraq in Jan­u­ary, spark­ing anger in Tehran.

The US State Depart­ment has revealed few details about Mr Levin­son’s visit­to Iran, insist­ing he was there on pure­ly pri­vate busi­ness.

But Dawud Salahud­din, an Amer­i­can who con­vert­ed to Islam and was giv­en refuge in Iran in 1980, shed light on the mys­tery when he con­firmed to the Finan­cial Times in Tehran that he had met Mr Levin­son in a hotel on Kish on March 8.

Mr Salahud­din, known in Iran as Has­san Abdul­rah­man, said he was detained by offi­cials in plain clothes at 11pm and tak­en from the room he shared with Mr Levin­son to be ques­tioned about his Iran­ian pass­port. Mr Salahud­din was freed the next after­noon and told by the offi­cials that Mr Levin­son had flown back to Dubai.

“I don’t think he is miss­ing, but don’t want to point my fin­ger at any­one. Some peo­ple know exact­ly where he is,” Mr Salahud­din said. “He came only to see me.”

Accord­ing to Mr Salahud­din, the meet­ing was only to put Mr Levin­son in touch with Iran­ian author­i­ties to help his inves­ti­ga­tions on smug­gling of cig­a­rettes as part of the for­mer agen­t’s work for a tobac­co com­pa­ny.

“What he was try­ing to do in Kish was to find a chan­nel to intro­duce him to author­i­ties in Tehran to help find out about net­works involved in smug­gling of cig­a­rettes, because his con­trac­tor com­pa­ny has been los­ing a lot of mon­ey.”

His account of their meet­ing con­firmed the sus­pi­cions of friends of Mr Levin­son in the US who believe he was arrest­ed after meet­ing Mr Salahud­din.

Mr Salahud­din has admit­ted in inter­views to killing Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a for­mer Iran­ian diplo­mat under the shah, in Mary­land in 1980, short­ly after the 1979 Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion in Iran.

In the past he has expressed an inter­est in return­ing to the US to face jus­tice. He has also writ­ten about his long-dis­tance rela­tion­ship with a police detec­tive, the late Carl Shof­fler, who want­ed to get him back to the US.

US offi­cials have stressed that Mr Levin­son, whose exper­tise lies in Russ­ian crim­i­nal gangs and coun­ter­feit­ing, was not in Kish on US gov­ern­ment busi­ness.

Mr Salahud­din is wor­ried about Mr Levin­son’s health but he is also con­fi­dent “he is well tak­en care of” by Iran­ian author­i­ties.

He insist­ed Mr Levin­son was inno­cent, blam­ing both Ira­ni­ans for their “para­noia” about Amer­i­cans and the US for its for­eign pol­i­cy which had made the for­mer FBI agent “an inno­cent vic­tim”.