THE BLOG

Levinson on Kish Island

12/20/2013 09:35 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

Kish Island is a short plane ride from Dubai -- a lush consumerist mecca off Iran's southern coast. It's a possession of the theocratic Islamic Republic, but westerners, including Americans, are allowed on the island without an Iranian visa, which is not easy to obtain.

Last week, the Associated Press broke a major story about the missing American Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared seven years ago after a meeting on Kish Island with an infamous informant. The AP revealed that Levinson had CIA ties, a fact that was covered up for years.

In the spring of 2012, I somewhat naively proposed a story on Kish Island to "T" Magaizine, the New York Times' super-slick style and fashion publication. The idea was that Kish is an unusually exotic location with an unusual Iran connection , and the place hasn't been written about that much. And of course the Levinson case gave it additional cache -- or at least I pitched that way.

The "T" editor liked the story, initially saying it had a James Bond feel to it. I tried to disabuse him of that romantic notion and he finally said, surprisingly, that I should deal with the Levinson element as I would if I was covering it for the Times itself, while also conveying the island's more seductive aspects, for the toney magazine. But he said I shouldn't sweat the tourism angle too much -- that "T" wanted a serious piece focusing on Levinson.

So I started planning the trip. I thought I'd spend a few days in Dubai cultivating possible sources on the tangled Levinson saga, and then head to Kish Island. I'd show my American passport (someone said an Israel stamp on it might be a problem, but I'd probably get through), and blithely proceed to do the same kind of careful reporting I'd do anywhere else. No way, said the FBI.

In a conference call from Washington with an agent working on the case and an FBI spokesperson, the agent repeated the by now familiar official line that Levinson, then 64 -- an organized crime specialist with extensive knowledge of Russian smuggling operations -- was a private investigator looking into cigarette smuggling when he went to Kish Island for a meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, aka David Belfield, an African-American fugitive and informant who's admitted to the 1980 murder in Maryland of an Iranian exile. Salahuddin's been living in exile in Iran since 1980 and Levinson was apparently attempting to use him as an expert source on international cigarette smuggling.

The agent said that Levinson was last seen heading to the island's airport in a taxi on March 9th, 2007, after his meeting with Salahuddin. The agent said the FBI believed that he was being held by kidnappers in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or was in the custody of Iran's notorious Revolutionary Guard. A recent offer by the FBI of a million dollars for any tips leading to Levinson's release had produced no significant new information, the agent said. "We run down every lead that comes in," he said. The best clue thus far had not led anywhere: a political prisoner who had no knowledge of Levinson's case reported that he saw "B. Levinson" scrawled on the frame of a cell in a prison run by the Revolutionary Guard.

So after listening to the agent's mostly predictable spiel about the case, I explained the assignment for "T" Magazine and asked if I could expect the FBI's cooperation on the story. His response: "In my opinion it's not a good idea to go to Kish Island. You might end up in a prison cell with Bob Levinson." He said I might get through the island's rigorous customs procedure without incident, but would be dangerously vulnerable once I started asking questions about Levinson on the island. (Starting, probably, with the desk clerk at the hotel from which Levinson had checked out on that March day five years earlier.)

The agent denied there'd been any "back door" contact between the Iranian government and the State Department or any other American agency. My notes on the interview don't reflect that I broached Levinson's possible CIA involvement, probably because staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee had already steered me away from any such speculation.

I immediately recounted my FBI interview to the "T" editor, volunteering to work on the Levinson story in Dubai and also focusing on his anguished family in this country. But the editor said no, naturally: they had to have the Kish Island angle for the glitzy magazine. So I pretty much gave up on the Levinson story then, although I made a few calls about possible developments when Iranian's new president took office last August. And I thought I might take another shot at the Levinson story in the new year, since -- if he's still alive -- Levinson has now been held longer than any American captive.

But the AP story broke the case wide open. In addition to working as a private investigator on cigarette smuggling, Levinson was also a contractor for the CIA, the wire service reported. But his fate remains as much a mystery now as it was when he first disappeared. And Kish Island remains a place where answers are not going to be found to questions one dare not ask.