By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation hinted on Wednesday that authorities in Iran had recently been trying to help locate Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared exactly nine years ago after traveling to an Iranian resort island to meet a fugitive from U.S. justice.
"We are encouraged by recent cooperation between the government of Iran and the United States, and believe that our ability to locate Bob and reunite him with his family requires a shared commitment by the Iranian government," the FBI's Washington Field Office said in a prepared statement.
The statement quoted FBI Director James Comey saying that his agency was "doing everything in our power to investigate all leads."
The FBI statement did not elaborate further.
The White House also said that finding Levinson "remains a top priority for the United States," but added that the U.S. would "continue to call upon the Islamic Republic of Iran to provide assistance in his case, as agreed to as part of the prisoner exchange finalized earlier this year."
Five Americans were released by Iran in January to coincide with the lifting of economic sanctions in return for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program. The White House offered clemency to seven Iranians who were convicted or facing trial in the United States.
Levinson's family continued to urge the U.S. government to press Iran for his release. In a statement, Levinson's wife, Christine, said: "We need the United States government and the country of Iran to work together to resolve what happened to Bob and return him safely to his family."
Levinson disappeared after flying from Dubai to Kish Island in the Gulf in March 2007. There he met with Daoud Salahuddin, an American Islamic militant who fled to Iran while facing charges in the murder of an Iranian embassy official based in Washington.
Levinson, working then as a private investigator, was seeking information on alleged corruption involving former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family, said sources familiar with his work.
Months after he disappeared, U.S. government sources acknowledged that Levinson also maintained an unorthodox contractual relationship with the analytical branch of the Central Intelligence Agency. A handful of CIA officials were forced out of the agency and several more were disciplined after an internal agency investigation.
The Iranian government has never publicly acknowledged any role in Levinson's abduction, though at the time of his disappearance a government-affiliated media outlet broadcast a story saying he was "in the hands of Iranian security forces."
Some FBI investigators strongly believe Levinson is still alive, while officials at other U.S. agencies believe he died some time ago.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, editing by G Crosse)