By Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) – The United States on Monday blacklisted two Iranian officials who it accused of involvement in the 2007 disappearance of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who Washington believes was abducted in Iran and died in captivity.
The sanctions on Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai of Iran‘s Ministry of Intelligence and Security are the latest in a long series of such actions by U.S. President Donald Trump, whose term ends on Jan. 20 when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
As a result of the sanctions, any property of the men under U.S. jurisdiction must be blocked and U.S. persons are generally barred from dealing with them. Foreign persons risk blacklisting for dealing with them and foreign banks also could be punished for knowingly facilitating a significant transaction for them.
“Senior Iranian officials authorized Levinson’s abduction and detention and launched a disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the regime,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
In a conference call, U.S. officials said all evidence the United States has gathered so far indicates that Levinson, who went missing on Iran‘s Kish Island in the Gulf in April 2007, likely died in captivity.
Levinson’s family said on March 25 it believed Levinson died in Iranian custody, based on information from U.S. officials.
The U.S. officials declined to detail why they had announced the sanctions now, saying only that it is a lengthy process to gather the evidence and to make the legal determination.
One reason for the timing may be to make it harder for Biden to negotiate a return to world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – which Trump abandoned in 2018 – if Iran resumes complying with the accord, without ensuring the release of all U.S. citizens detained by the Islamic Republic.
“We all expect a negotiation next year,” a senior U.S. official told reporters. “There should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again that doesn’t free the Americans who are unjustly detained in that country.”
Last March, Iran‘s United Nations mission spokesman, Alireza Miryousefi, said Tehran had always maintained that its officials had no knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts and that he was not in Iranian custody.
At least three U.S. citizens are currently detained by Iran: Baquer Namazi, his son Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis with additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)