U.S. has signs ex-FBI agent held in southwest Asia

By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Thursday it has seen recent indications that a former FBI agent who vanished in Iran in 2007 is being held in southwest Asia, a rare public signal that it has reason to believe he is alive.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to Iran to help find the man, Robert Levinson, and to reunite him with his family despite past U.S. frustration that Tehran had ignored U.S. pleas for information about him.

“We have received recent indications that Bob is being held somewhere in southwest Asia,” Clinton said in a brief written statement that said Iran had “previously offered its assistance in this matter.”

“We respectfully request the Iranian government to undertake humanitarian efforts to safely return and reunite Bob with his family,” she said. “We would appreciate the Iranian government’s efforts in this matter.”

The statement, issued nearly four years after Levinson disappeared while on a business trip to Iran’s Kish island, provided no further details and did not say precisely what it meant by “southwest Asia.”

There does not appear to be a common geographic definition of the term, which could apply to a broad swathe of countries from Turkey to Afghanistan, including Iran.

Washington cut diplomatic relations with Tehran after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and ties are strained by many issues including U.S. accusations that Iran supports terrorism and may be pursuing nuclear weapons.

Iran denies this, saying its nuclear development program is intended solely for generation of electricity, so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.

Levinson’s disappearance has attracted considerable attention in Washington. Clinton met with his wife in May 2009 and reassured her the United States was still seeking information from Iran about his whereabouts.

The FBI said it continued to investigate the matter. “It’s an ongoing investigation. It remains our goal to bring him home safely,” said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, editing by Todd Eastham)