The American Left Behind

The families of six Americans detained in Iran were celebrating their release over the weekend, and the whole country celebrated with them. There is little to compare with the fear and anxiety of knowing that a loved one is being held indefinitely in the prisons of one of the most brutal, tyrannical regimes on Earth. The joy at the end of their ordeal must be indescribable.

The deal for their freedom — in exchange for several Iranians held by the U.S. — was not part of the nuclear agreement, but the product of secret talks that paralleled the formal negotiations and coincided with the lifting of sanctions. The Obama administration had come under heavy criticism for concluding the nuclear accord without securing the release of American detainees.

But President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry presented the prisoner release as a vindication of their diplomacy.

“This is a good day, because once again we’re seeing what’s possible with strong American diplomacy,” Obama said in a speech on Sunday. He praised the “tireless” effort that went into the prisoner deal, and counted it as a significant achievement, alongside the nuclear deal itself.

Kerry said that “the relationships forged and the diplomatic channels unlocked over the course of the nuclear talks” helped accelerate the prisoner talks.

However, that is not the whole picture. Aside from our deep concern over the nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions against this unrepentant terrorist state, the jubilation over the freeing of the prisoners cannot be complete as long as the fate of one other American prisoner in Iran remains unknown.

We refer to Robert Levinson, 68, a father of seven from Coral Springs, Florida. The Levinson family said that while “we are happy for the other families,” they were “devastated” to learn that he was “left behind” and not included in the prisoner deal.

The last evidence that Levinson was still alive came in 2011 in the form of photos and videos he sent to his family in which he appealed for help.

“I have been held here for three and a half years,” he said in a video. “I am not in very good health. I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine.”

Levinson disappeared while working for the CIA in Iran in 2007. The intelligence agency has confirmed U.S. responsibility for him, approving financial compensation for the family. Levinson is the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, assuming he is still alive, which many believe he is.

A few days ago, an unnamed senior Obama administration official said that they have not given up on Levinson. They have not yet ascertained his whereabouts, but they continue talking with the Iranians in an effort to find and bring him back.

Iran denies official involvement in his disappearance; yet, the last person to see Levinson alive, on Kish Island& off Iran’s coast, saw him taken into custody by Iranian authorities.

Washington seems to think he is still alive. The Washington Post quoted a U.S. official as saying that as part of the exchange deal, Iran “committed to continue cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Robert Levinson.” In addition, a $5 million reward has been offered for information leading to Levinson.

So, there is still hope for his return. But one wonders why Levinson’s case could not be tied to the others. Why couldn’t it also have been resolved by now, after a year of negotiating for the release of the others?

Levinson’s son Daniel is not very impressed by the government’s handling of the matter. Last year, at the time of the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran, he said that he thought the United States had “squandered its best opportunity for leverage in ensuring my father’s safe return home.” In his view, by deciding not to link the nuclear deal to any other issues, the Obama administration effectively tied its hands in bargaining for his father’s freedom.

As long as Robert Levinson remains behind, the story of the American captives in Iran cannot be considered closed.

We join with the Levinson family in their hopes and prayers for his safe return, and urge the Obama administration to exert every effort to pressure Iran to release him at once.