After more than four years of negotiating for information about the disappearance of U.S. citizen and former FBI agent Robert Levinson during a business trip on Iran's southern coast, U.S. officials are hopeful this week's release of two American hikers will now shine a spotlight on the cold case.
"We have reason to believe he's still alive," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). "Let's keep the pressure on the government of Iran to release another American."
Nelson is urging U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to address Levinson's whereabouts at the United Nations General Assembly this week, attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad followed news of the hikers' release – which he told ABC News was a "humanitarian gesture" by Iran – by blasting the U.S. and its allies in his address Thursday to the general assembly and suggesting the Holocaust and Sept. 11 attacks were Western conspiracies.
A U.S. State Department official told ABC News they are working with and pressing the Iranian government for information on Levinson.
"We're overjoyed with the release of [the American hikers] and we really want to see Mr. Levinson come home," the official said.
Levinson, a married father of seven from Florida, was last seen March 9, 2007, while he was on a business trip working for a private investigative firm in Kish Island. According to associates, Levinson had traveled to Kish to meet with an American fugitive accused of murdering a former Iranian official in suburban Washington in 1980. U.S. authorities said he was last seen after checking into a local hotel for the meeting. In March, Clinton said there were indications that he is still alive and being held somewhere in southeast Asia.
American hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were released Wednesday from Iran's notorious Evin Prison after two years behind bars on espionage charges. They were hiking in Iraq with another American, Sarah Shourd, when they said they mistakenly crossed over into Iran, igniting a diplomatic battle between the U.S. and Iran that seemed to calm down when Ahmadinejad announced last week that the men would be released shortly. Shourd was freed in September 2010 after more than a year behind bars in the same prison due to medical concerns.
But the controversy was re-ignited Thursday when Ahmadinejad blamed the U.S. and its western allies for global instability.
"Do these arrogant powers really have the competence and ability to run or govern the world?" he said as American diplomats led a massive walkout that included the representatives for as many as 30 nations. "Is it acceptable that they call themselves the sole defender of freedom, democracy, and human rights, while they militarily attack and occupy other countries?"
Iran has a long history of imprisoning Westerners on questionable allegations. California State student Esha Momeni was working on her master's thesis on women's rights in Iran when authorities arrested her for allegedly speeding on a highway, before bringing her to her family's home and confiscating her video-taped interviews for her thesis and her computer. She was imprisoned in Evin Prison for nearly a month and returned to the U.S. in August 2009.