US, Iran inch toward cooperation to find American

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 5:10 PM
US, Iran inch toward cooperation to find American

As the family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson marked the fourth anniversary of his disappearance, Iran and the United States tiptoed toward a collaboration that offers the best hope yet for bringing him home alive.

Four days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that Levinson is alive, Tehran and Washington traded carefully worded diplomatic messages Tuesday. Both sides described finding Levinson, a father of seven with a history of health problems, as a humanitarian issue.

Iran continued to deny ever capturing Levinson but, in the most promising sign of cooperation since his disappearance, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran would cooperate "on a humanitarian basis." He called on the U.S. to provide more information about Levinson.

"If there is reliable information, relaying it to Iranian officials can turn this into a collective effort," he said.

In Washington, the State Department said it was gratified that Iran was willing to help find Levinson.

"We hope that, given that Iran had signaled an interest in helping with this case, that Iran will want to take humanitarian actions to help try to resolve it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "So we hope that there will be cooperation."

Levinson, a private investigator working for corporate clients, disappeared in 2007 from the Iranian island of Kish. His family said he was investigating cigarette smuggling at the time.

Late last year, officials told The Associated Press, Levinson's family received irrefutable proof of life. That jump-started a fresh round of diplomacy, which appears to be slowly making progress. For years, public remarks by the two countries had been marked by frustration.

"Since Bob's disappearance we have an addition to our large and growing family: baby Grace, Bob's second grandchild," Levinson's wife, Christine, of Coral Springs, Fla., said Tuesday on the eve of the fourth anniversary of this disappearance. "Also, our daughter Sarah was married in September 2010. Bob's absence weighs on us every day and is magnified during these once-in-a-lifetime family moments."

Levinson disappeared after a meeting with Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for the assassination of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. Salahuddin has said he last saw Levinson being questioned by Iranian officials. Levinson's distinctive signature was used to check out of his hotel, but he never made it to the airport.

Clinton said Thursday it's possible Levinson was being held somewhere in southwest Asia.

Iran shares borders with the southwest Asian countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, raising the possibility that Levinson was shuttled into one of those countries. Both border crossings are known smuggling routes. The route into Pakistan leads into a lawless tribal region that's home to insurgents, terrorist groups and criminal organizations.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Orkin in Miami contributed to this report.