Recently, reports have surfaced that the U.S. government is going out of its way to grant Iran access to the dollar for financial transactions, which officials had said would not happen as a result of last summer’s nuclear deal.
For my family, such a failure by the Obama administration to stand by its commitments concerning Iran would be another in a series of failures that are very personal to us, with life-and-death consequences. My father is Robert Levinson, the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, who was kidnapped in Iran on March 9, 2007.
What incentive does Iran have to send my father home if it is already being handed everything it wants? I have no doubt that if the administration told Iran there would be no further negotiations on any other issues until my dad is returned, Tehran would move quickly to resolve his case. But Washington has shown an unwillingness to do that, and we feel helpless.
My father appears to be a secondary issue. Last June, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee with family members of three other Americans held in Iran to press for the return of our loved ones. In January, my family found out while watching the news that my father was the only one of those captives not coming home as part of an exchange. Meanwhile, media outlets have quoted an Iranian official as saying that the two sides are close to another deal involving two Iranian Americans arrested in recent months. Once again, my father, a CIA contractor and ex-FBI agent who was the only one of the imprisoned Americans acting in service to his country when he was taken, is being abandoned. We’ve lost track of how many times he has been left behind.
In the three weeks after the January swap, we went on a full-court press in the media, asking #WhatAboutBob . During that time, we did not hear directly from a single administration official. The only comments we heard were those made on TV, sometimes immediately before or after we went on the air ourselves. When officials did talk about my father, they said they weren’t sure he was in Iran anymore. This was news to us, considering that the FBI, tasked with the day-to-day investigation of the case, had repeatedly told us it believed he was still there. We were eventually granted meetings with President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and FBI Director James B. Comey. During those meetings, there was never any question that the U.S. government believed the Iranians know what happened to my father.
The White House is not doing enough to pressure Iran. On March 9, the ninth anniversary of my father’s disappearance, the FBI released a statement calling him the longest-held hostage in U.S. history. The House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions saying that he is the longest-held U.S. civilian in history. Yet the White House and State Department have avoided acknowledging the basic fact that he is a hostage. When pressed by a reporter about this, a State Department spokesman spent 3½ excruciating minutes refusing to call him a hostage. My father has appeared in a video pleading for help and in pictures wearing chains, clearly being held against his will. What further evidence is needed?
Our disappearing faith in the administration’s efforts prompted me to take desperate action: I went to Iran myself. In late February, I traveled to Iran’s Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, where my father was last seen. I delivered a letter addressed to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other officials who I believe have knowledge of his abduction. I met with officials from Iran’s Foreign Ministry and listened to the denials we have grown accustomed to over the years. I was told I’d be given an official response to my letter but have yet to receive one.
It’s likely my father was moved from Kish long ago, but my trip was a reminder of how closely visitors are watched there. When I asked staff members at my hotel if I could keep my passport after checking in, I was told they needed to hold it because officials come by nightly to review the documents of visitors. The next morning, as I went to breakfast, I told the hostess my room number. The security guard standing next to her, whom I had never met, said without hesitation, “Daniel Joseph? Good morning!” Joseph is my middle name. It’s hard to believe no one knows what happened to my father, a 6-foot-4, blue-eyed American on a tiny island in a country with some of the heaviest security in the world.
Iran’s government is highly compartmentalized. There may only be a handful of people in all of Iran who know where my father is. Still, if leaders there truly want to improve relations with the West, they must help secure my father’s release by following through on their commitment to cooperate with the United States in locating him. They certainly have the ability to do this. At the same time, the Obama administration must press harder to reach those few people with the power to send my father home.
While driving to a meeting on Kish, a Foreign Ministry official said to me, “This is like a Hollywood movie: your father’s story, you here in Iran.” Sadly, this is a real-life, nine-years-and-counting nightmare that we can’t wake up from. And heroes are nowhere to be found.