WASHINGTON — In an instant, the disappearance of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran went from a cold case to something very hot.
After nearly four years without word about what happened to Levinson, his family received proof late last year that the father of seven was alive. It was a dramatic development that sharply intensified diplomatic efforts to bring him home.
Until then, there had never been any evidence about whether Levinson was alive or dead since he disappeared in March 2007 from the Iranian island of Kish. It remains unclear who is holding Levinson or where he is, but the proof that he is alive was a hopeful sign that whoever has him was willing to negotiate for his release.
"It has been almost four years since I have seen my beloved husband Robert Levinson," his wife, Christine, said in a statement on the family's website. "Our family is tremendously encouraged by the news Bob is alive but remains concerned for his safety and well being."
The AP has known about the proof that Levinson is alive since shortly after it arrived but delayed reporting it because officials said any publicity would jeopardize getting Levinson home safely. The AP is not disclosing the nature of the proof because officials believe that would hurt efforts to free him.
On Thursday, the State Department issued a three-sentence statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying there were indications Levinson was in southwest Asia and asking Iran for help. The AP has learned fuller details after a lengthy investigation into Levinson's disappearance and the effort to get him back to the U.S.
Authorities don't know why the evidence that Levinson was alive surfaced now after years of silence. But it has touched off the most hopeful round of diplomacy since he disappeared.