Background Press Call on Announcement of Designations of Iranian MOIS Officers for Their Role in the Abduction and Detention of Robert Levinson

Office of the Press Secretary                  FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 14, 2020                                                                                                                                            

Via Teleconference

 9:35 A.M. EST

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Hey, good morning everybody.  Thanks for joining the call today.  Today we have representatives from the National Security Council, the Department of Treasury, FBI, and State on this call to talk about a Department of Treasury action that’s going to be announced at 10:30 this morning.

    This call is on background and embargoed until 10:30 when the Treasury announcement is made.  All of the quotes that are used from this call from the officials should be attributed to a “senior government official.”

    Now, having said that, I want to run through the names and titles of our speakers, just so you know who we have here today.  The way we’ll do this, as we always do, is have brief comments at the top, then we’ll open things up to some Q&A.

    So the speakers are -- the participants in today’s call: [senior government officials].

    So, with that, we will get started.  And I’m going to turn it over now to [senior government official] of the National Security Council.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  And thanks again for everybody taking the time this morning to join the call -- an important action -- and we look forward to your questions.

    But today, the Department of the Treasury is going to announce designations on two Iranian intelligence officers from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security for the direct involvement in the abduction, detention, and probable death of Robert Levinson.

    These are the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable for the abduction of Mr. Levinson, the longest-held U.S. hostage ever.

    We've identified two MOIS officers responsible: Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai.  But our investigation continues, and we do appreciate the work of the Department of Treasury for this action today, supported greatly by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other U.S. government agencies.

    Based on this work, we know how senior Iranian officials sanctioned Mr. Levinson's abduction and detention.  The regime also took deliberate actions to obfuscate the responsibility through an extensive disinformation campaign.  Iranian leaders have lied over and over again about what happened to Mr. Levinson, and that continues to this day.

    The Trump administration has always been clear on this: We'll hold Iran accountable for its use of unlawful detention and hostage taking as a tool of foreign policy.  The United States will no longer accept Iranian excuses for what they know they have done to Mr. Levinson.

    This is the worst case of Iranian hostage taking: abducting an American and holding him outside the judicial process in perpetuity, then potentially killing him.  No family should be subjected to this uncertainty -- what happened to their loved one.  After more than 13 years, the long-suffering Levinson family deserves resolution.  The United States will continue its investigation to identify more Iranian officials responsible in his abduction and will hold these hostage takers responsible.

    As you know, there's a $20 million Reward for Justice and $5 million FBI reward for more information leading to Mr. Levinson's return, and we hope today's action will help increase and improve our odds of resolving this.

    Any talks with Iran must include a resolution to this case, and we've been insistent on it from the beginning.  Levinson must be included on any list of Americans detained in Iran and must be returned to the United States.  We will not cease our efforts until all Americans are returned home.

    And I appreciate, again, your time.  And I appreciate the efforts today at Treasury, the FBI, State Department, and other colleagues.

    And, with that, I'll pass it the next speaker.  Thank you.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah.  Treasury, go ahead.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  As my colleague just noted: For 13 years, the Iranian government denied knowledge of the whereabouts or condition of Mr. Robert Levinson, who was abducted on or about March 9, 2007, on Iran's Kish Island.

    Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated and revealed the identity of these two senior officials of the MOIS who were involved in the abduction and detention of Mr. Levinson in Iran.  The individuals designated today, Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai, acted in their capacity as MOIS officers in the abduction, detention, and probable death of Mr. Levinson.

    Senior Iranian officials authorized these actions and launched a disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the Iranian regime.  Mohammad Baseri is a high-ranking MOIS officer involved in counter-espionage activities in and outside of Iran.  Baseri has worked directly with intelligence officials from other countries to target and harm U.S. interests.

    Ahmad Khazai is also a high-ranking member of the MOIS, who has led MOIS delegations to other countries to assess the security situation.  

    Today, OFAC is designating Baseri and Khazai for acting for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Iran’s MOIS.  These actions are being taken pursuant to our Iran human rights executive order, EO 13553.

    The MOIS has been designated under this executive order for being complicit in the commission of serious human rights abuses against the Iranian people since June 2009.  The MOIS is also designated as a global terrorist, pursuant to executive order 13224.

    I'd now like to pass it over to my colleague from the FBI.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Good morning.  Again, [senior government official] from the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.  I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to be on the call.  And, again, thank you to all my colleagues.  And thank you to all the U.S. government officials that have worked on this effort to date.

    As we all know, the U.S. government and the U.S. people know that the Iranian regime has a really long and cruel history for taking Americans for political leverage.  This is very personal here at the FBI, and it's very meaningful to see this announcement today.

    As you all know, probably, Bob Levinson served the U.S. government for 28 years in both the DEA and the FBI.  But more importantly, Bob is a husband, he's a brother, he's a father of seven, and now he's a grandfather of seven.  So we're hoping today’s designation puts a responsibility squarely on the Iranian regime for the first time and these two senior officers.  And we hope that this gives Bob's family some of the answers they deserve.  But by no means do we acknowledge the fact that this does not bring Bob's family home.  But it's still a very important acknowledgement, and it's probably long overdue.

    We are still working hard to bring him home and bring justice and closure to his family.  By no means is this the end of the story.

    In three months, we're going to mark the 14th anniversary of Bob's disappearance.  We hope that today's demonstration is that the entire U.S. government is still standing with Bob's family.  This is by no means the end of our commitment to that family, be it the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, all my colleagues in the FBI, and across the U.S. government are going to continue to work this matter.  And we're not going to rest until every American held captive in Iran, be it Bob, Siamak Namazi, Baquer Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, or any other hostage being held today comes home.

    Thank you.


    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  I'll be brief.  We are emphasizing that senior Iranian officials sanction the operation that abducted and detained and probably killed Bob Levinson, and then has lied about it over and over again.  The regime in Iran is 41 years old, and it has a 41-year record of hostage taking, which is -- or should be a reminder to Americans about the great danger of travel to Iran, probably most of all for dual citizens of Iran and the U.S.

    As was just noted, there are three Americans detained in Iran now -- Baquer Namazi, who’s 84 years old, but they won't let him return to the U.S.; Siamak Namazi, his son; and Morad Tahbaz -- all of whom we are working literally every day to try to free for a return to the United States.

    Finally, just to repeat one last point, there should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again that doesn't free the Americans who are unjustly detained in that country.  We all expect a negotiation next year.  That negotiation must include the return home of all the Americans unjustly detained in that country.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  All right.  Thank you, [senior government official].  Appreciate that.

    So we will now open it up for a few questions.  Since we have several participants here, when you come on, first of all, if you could identify your news organization, and then if you have a question directed towards anyone in particular, if you could just specify.

    So, with that, we can go ahead and start the questions.

    Q    Hi, there.  Thanks for doing this call.  [Senior government official] might be best placed to answer this, but whoever wants to answer.  I was wondering if there's any new information that led you to this designation today.  Is there something new that you found out that made you determine Iran's involvement, as you say?

    And can you say what you think the motivation was for targeting Mr. Levinson?  Thank you.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  I think I'd probably refer that to maybe FBI.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Sure.  You know, this has been a process that we've been moving towards.  I'm not going to really discuss the specifics as to how we came to the conclusion and designated these two individuals, as we have to be careful about protecting intelligence sources and methods.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  I don't think we can give you more than that, actually.  I can't -- I can't get into their heads and figure out why they would do this.  You know, logic would suggest the desire to seize and question someone who had spent his career in law enforcement in the United States, but that's a deduction.

    Q    Yes, hi.  Thanks for sharing this.  To put a finer point on Shaun's question: How long has this been in the works?  Is there a particular reason why now, in mid-December, you're rolling this designation out?  And separately, are you concerned at all that this would have a negative impact on the Americans who are currently detained in Iran?  Thank you.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, on the latter point, I would say no.  We are working for their release, and we want Iran to be clear that we will never stop working for their release, and we will never drop the case of any American who comes to harm in Iran, no matter how many years go by.  I don’t think that’s a disincentive; I would hope it’s an incentive.

    Q    For [senior government official], you described how a senior Iranian official sanctioned the plot.  Can you talk about that a little more?  What evidence you have of that.

    And then, zooming back out to repeat a version of what Shaun asked: What information do you have that has led you to believe -- to suggest that Mr. Levinson -- I believe the phrase was the “probable death”?  Can you talk about the information that you have going into that assessment?  Thanks.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  I’ll leave that part to, I think, the FBI, because I think they're best suited to do this.
This case is 13 years old, and there have been a long series of official lies about it, from the top of the Iranian government and from spokespeople for the Iranian government.  We also know about the two individuals who were sanctioned today, and they know about the attention that this case continues to get at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

    So without getting into the question of what intel we have, I think it's very clear that this case was well understood, well known at very high levels in the Iranian government.  This is not something that has been hidden and comes as a surprise to the top leaders.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  As to the term “probable death” and why we use that: I'll just say that the U.S. government determined that all the evidence that we have to date likely points to Bob's death while in captivity, but we're still continuing to work to see if we can get any more information and develop the necessary evidence.

    We're actually also hopeful that today's public naming of these MOIS officials for their involvement in Bob's disappearance will hopefully lead to some others coming forward with information about Bob and people involved in its hostage taking.

    As the Director of the FBI, Chris Wray, told his workforce earlier this year, the interagency came to this determination that the most likely or credible evidence collected over the past 13 years that we have now is that the likelihood is that Bob died in captivity.  Now, that still does not mean that the U.S. government has given up on finding out what happened to Bob.  We’re going to keep working doggedly to determine any circumstances surrounding his abduction and his time in captivity so that we can find the answers that we all want and that the Levinson family deserves.

    Q    Hi, thank you so much for doing this.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the timing of this announcement.  Obviously, we're in the final weeks of the Trump administration.  Is there something specific to take away as to
why this announcement is being made now when the actual announcement about his probable death was back in March?  Can you talk a little about the specifics of, you know, why we're having this now?  Thank you.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Hey, Eric, appreciate the question.  This is [senior government official] at the NSC.

    So, two things.  First is, you know, we have been doggedly pursuing this and every other case.  It's one of the most complex and challenging, as everyone recognizes.  It's been going on for a very long time.  It's a testament, I think, to our colleagues in the FBI, Treasury, and other departments and agencies, the U.S. government, to obtain the information.

    But we take our actions based on the information available.  So as soon as the conclusion was made, the actions were processed, and we're holding the individuals accountable, and we're holding the Iranian government accountable.

    And so there is no -- there's nothing really to read into the timing of it.  It is independent of any other decisions and discussions.  It is strictly based on our obtaining the information and processing them accordingly and holding the Iranians accountable.  But thanks for the question.

    Q    Hi, yes.  Hi, good morning.  Thanks for doing this.  I'm just wondering -- sorry, if this has been asked -- but why did you wait this long to sanction these officers?  And
can you give us any more information whether they're still involved, you know, with other U.S. hostages taken in Iran?

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  This is [senior government official] again.  I'll pick up, and then other colleagues can jump in with amplifying information and thoughts.  I go back to the comments I made to Eric.  There's no -- there's no reason we took this long other than it's a complex case, obtaining the information and processing it.  And all due diligence required -- you know, necessitated the release at this time.  So as soon as we obtained the information, we could determine culpability, we could issue the actions.  That's the only real criteria for issuing this action at this time.  We didn't delay, but we also didn't skip any steps in the process.

    But I will, again, state that this is a very complex case.  Iran is a very difficult place to obtain information required in order to process these actions.  And, again, I just want to thank our FBI, Treasury, and other colleagues to get to the point where we could take effective action.

    As stated at the top and reemphasized by all of us, this is the first time we're holding the Iranian government accountable.  And we're naming individuals, and we're employing the authorities that we've been given in order to do so.  But would welcome thoughts and other comments by my colleagues.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: I would only add that these decisions that -- to sanction individuals really require a lengthy process and involve a lot of lawyers.  The lawyers determine whether the evidence we have is legally sufficient for sanctions determination, and that is one of the explanations.

    As [senior government official] says, you can imagine the difficulty of determining the involvement of individuals in the MOIS in this case.  So it's a long process and a careful process.  And when the process came to an end and we thought we have enough evidence, and it got through the lawyers, that's when the government acted.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Maybe we can just take one more question.

    Q    Good morning.  One question for [senior government official].  Can you explain the implications of the sanctions that you're announcing today?  And given that, I'm guessing, most MOIS officers or operatives do not have foreign bank accounts, you know, what is this really going to do to either of those two?

    And for [senior government official], you said that
never again -- you said that everyone expects there to be a negotiation with Iran next year, and there should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again.  That doesn't free the Americans who are unjustly detained.  What other things -- what conditions do you think should be placed on any negotiations that a Biden administration might seek, or any agreement they might reach with Iran on the nuclear program?  Thank you.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  I’ll take the first part of the question, if that’s all right.


    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Yeah, thanks for the question, Arshad.  So you're right: These two MOIS officers, it's unlikely -- I don't know for sure -- that they have bank accounts in the United States.  However, secondary sanctions do attach to this action.  And as we noted in our press release and in the remarks, these individuals have met directly with intelligence officials from other countries.  They have also led MOIS delegations.  There are secondary sanctions implications for any of their external dealings outside of Iran.  It is one part of a pressure campaign, though.

    Let me turn it over to [senior government official] for the remainder of your question.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Baquer Namazi was imprisoned in 2016 when he went to Iran to visit his son who was already imprisoned.  And the agreement that we made in 2015 was made at a time when Siamak Namazi was already unjustly imprisoned in Iran.  So the agreement was made despite his imprisonment, and his liberation was not part of it.  That's what I'm saying should never happen again.  No more big agreements with Iran that ignore and, in a sense, abandon Americans who are in prison there.  They must be freed.

    I don't want, Arshad, to get into a discussion here of, “Well, you know, what about all the other issues that we have about missiles or the nuclear program, or so on?”  Because that's not the purpose of this call.

    But Bob Levinson’s case is a reminder that there are other Americans imprisoned in Iran.  And I think it's right to make the point that any negotiations with Iran have to include these Americans and have to bring them home.

    SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL:  Okay, very good.  Thank you, everybody.  Appreciate everybody jumping on today.

    Just want to remind everyone of the ground rules that were stated at the beginning of this call: that this is on background, attributed to “senior government officials,” and that it is embargoed until 10:30, once Treasury announces the sanctions.  So look for that in a little over a half hour.

    Again, just want to thank everyone -- the speakers for joining -- and all of you for calling in today.  Have a great day.                    
                              END                 9:56 A.M. EST

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