American and Iranian officials downplayed the disappearance of a former FBI agent in Iran last month, with a US diplomatic official describing the case as routine and saying several Americans go temporarily missing each year in Iran.
Wes Robertson, a spokesman for the US Embassy in the Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, said the State Department has already contacted Iran for information on the American, identified as Robert Levinson of Coral Springs, Florida.
Levinson, 59, is a retired FBI agent last seen March 11 on the Iranian resort island of Kish, which sits across the Gulf from the Emirates. Levinson was said to be working on a film on the island, known for its beaches, sea turtles and relatively liberal atmosphere.
"We have several such cases each year involving welfare and whereabouts of America citizens in Iran," Robertson said. "He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran. We're contacting the Iranian government through our normal diplomatic channels" via the Swiss embassy in Tehran.
Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted Kish officials on Tuesday as saying there was no evidence that Levinson had disappeared, but gave no details on his whereabouts. The report asked US officials to provide Levinson's flight details for further investigation.
"It is likely such allegations are being made for political purpose, because no tourist has disappeared in Kish Island," the IRNA report said.
Levinson was an FBI agent in New York and Florida known for busting Italian and Russian mobsters. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh said he worked with him at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan in the late 1970s and at the FBI.
Levinson was an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration before he joined the FBI in 1976.
He retired from the FBI in 1998 and currently owns a private security company, R.A. Levinson & Associates. He is also a principal at Business Integrity International, an international investigative firm in Miami and New Jersey.
Kish is a common destination for visitors to the Emirates, who often use the inexpensive 45-minute flight to renew their Emirati visas. Americans need no visa to enter Kish, which is one of Iran's three free-trade zones with relaxed visa and trade rules.
In a September interview with The Associated Press, Kish governor Madjid Shayesteh said Americans were welcome on the 90-square kilometer (35 square-mile) island.
"Naturally we welcome tourists from any country, including Americans," said Shayesteh, who was appointed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We've had American tourists visiting Kish. And if Americans do come to visit the island, they'll find out that all the propaganda against Iran is unfounded and that this is one of the safest and most enjoyable places on earth."
Iranian tourists on the island complained at the time that a few of its vaunted social freedoms had been lost since Ahmadinejad took office, including the closure of beaches where women could bathe in bikinis alongside men.
The island is crammed with duty-free malls selling American goods and luxury hotels, with new ones springing up by the dozen. A German-Iranian joint venture is building a $2.2 billion golf resort on the island, once a playground of the US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.