Tehran said a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago had left the country a long time ago, despite the fact that his family said a day earlier that he had died in Iranian custody.
Robert Levinson went missing on Iran's Kish Island in the Gulf in March 2007. The case is another irritant in the already hostile relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Levinson's family said Wednesday that they now believed Levinson died in Iranian custody, according to information from US officials.
"Today with aching hearts, we are sharing devastating news about Robert Levinson, the head of our family," they said in a statement.
However, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday, based on what he called credible evidence, Levinson had left Iran "years ago,quot; for an unspecified destination.
"In recent years, Iran has tried to discover his state, but could find no sign that he was alive," spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to state television.
Reuters news agency had reported in 2013 that Levinson, a private detective and former FBI agent, was investigating allegations of corruption by well-connected people in Iran.
Attorney David McGee had then said Levinson was trying to trace laundered money through Iranian exiles living in Toronto.
US officials acknowledged to Reuters that Levinson had a relationship with the CIA as a source when he visited Kish Island and disappeared.
A video posted in 2011 showed him pleading for help. He did not say who was holding him or where.
Tehran denied being aware of Levinson's whereabouts last November, when he said a legal case involving him was underway in a revolutionary court handling security-related cases.
"Iran has always maintained that its officials are unaware of Levinson's whereabouts and that he is not in Iranian custody. Those facts have not changed," spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, said Thursday.
United States President Donald Trump said Wednesday he had not been told that Levinson was dead.
But White House national security adviser Robert O & # 39; Brien later said an investigation was still underway, but "we believe Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago."
Levinson's family said in their statement: "We recently received information from US officials that has led them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody."
They said they did not know when or how he died, but that it was before the coronavirus epidemic hit Iran. They also did not know if Levinson's body would ever be returned to them.
O & # 39; Brien said Iran should provide a full report of what happened to Levinson. Levinson went missing after flying from Dubai to Kish in 2007. There he encountered Daoud Salahuddin, an American "militant,quot; who fled to Iran while facing charges for the murder of a Washington, DC-based Iranian embassy official.
Levinson, then a private investigator, was seeking information on alleged corruption involving former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family, sources familiar with his work said.
The Iranian government has never publicly acknowledged any role in Levinson's kidnapping, although at the time of his disappearance, a government-affiliated media outlet had said it was "in the hands of the Iranian security forces."
Some American researchers, at least until recently, believed that Levinson was still alive, while officials from other American agencies believe that he died a few years ago.
The United States and the Islamic Republic have long been enemies. Washington opposes Tehran's influence in the Middle East and backs its regional rival Saudi Arabia. They also support opposing sides in the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Washington also maintains severe economic sanctions against Iran. In 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from an international agreement that halted Iran's nuclear program.
Reuters news agency