By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
The United States sent a formal message to Iran yesterday inquiring into the fate of a former FBI agent who was visiting Iran and has not been heard from since March 8, according to U.S. officials.
The unnamed former agent was on private business, but the United States is now sufficiently concerned that the State Department sent a formal query through Swiss intermediaries asking for information about him, the sources said. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has represented U.S. interests in Iran since relations were cut off in 1980.
"He is an American private citizen who is in Iran on private business, and we are now pursuing information about his welfare and whereabouts. We don't know where he is. We have no reliable information on him," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "I would not characterize him as a hostage."
The State Department, which has been in constant touch with the man's family and employer, has been trying to track his movements for more than two weeks, U.S. officials said. The missing American was visiting Kish Island, an Iranian resort and free-trade zone off the southwest coast that does not require a visa to visit. He had traveled to Iran from the United Arab Emirates, U.S. officials said.
The FBI and State Department stressed that the man was not working in any capacity for the U.S. government or any U.S. agency. His specialty at the FBI was not Iran, officials added.
The ex-agent, whose name is not being disclosed by the State Department for privacy reasons, had a long career in investigating organized crime in the United States. A middle-aged man who retired from the FBI more than a decade ago, the American worked in private investigations for corporate clients, according to FBI spokesman John Miller. As an FBI agent, he was not assigned to terrorism or Middle East issues, officials said.
The State Department said the missing man was going to meet someone to set up an interview or interviews for a project involving a book and a documentary by an independent producer and author believed to be from Canada, U.S. officials said. He was doing legwork for what a senior U.S. official described as an "innocuous" project that "had no connection with anything political." The official added: "The guy was on a perfectly harmless private activity." But he also may have been doing some work for his own consulting business, U.S. officials said.
The State Department receives information on two or three Americans missing in Iran each year, McCormack said. Although every case is different, some of the missing end up being travelers who do not get in touch with their families. This case does not appear to fit in that mold, however, a U.S. official said.
The case is unrelated to the 15 British sailors and marines seized by Iran in the Persian Gulf on March 23, U.S. officials said. But the United States has its own history on hostages -- most notably the 52 Americans held captive in Iran after the U.S. Embassy takeover from 1979 to 1981.
Kish Island was developed in the mid-1990s in an attempt to attract foreign investment and as a place for Iranians to vacation. The goal was to have a rival for the glitzy sheikdoms such as Dubai across the Persian Gulf. The normally rigid social customs are more relaxed on Kish. More than 1 million people visit every year.