As the curtain closes on the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenure, their two chief accomplishments on the foreign policy front have been the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal) and the Paris climate change agreement. But, the balance sheet of Kerry’s legacy leans heavily toward failure: Hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced in Syria, voided red lines, an ineffective response to aggression and saber-rattling by the Islamic State, Russia, China, and North Korea, personal animosity substituting for strategy with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a human rights crackdown in Cuba, and squandered leverage across the globe.
The man who should haunt the dreams of Kerry and his team into their retirement, however, is Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent turned independent contractor who entered Iran legally and then was seized by its security forces. Levinson then disappeared into Iran’s prison system.
Kerry bragged that the Iran nuclear deal opened channels and that he would raise the issue of American prisoners held by Iran and he claimed that he raised their fate at every opportunity. Still, when his leverage was greatest, he did not hold firm to demand Levinson’s return—or information about his ultimate fate. Kerry could not even be bothered to notify the family that, as the $1 billion-plus hostage ransom was paid, that Kerry had not demanded Levinson’s inclusion.
Much has been written about how Levinson had apparently done side contracting with the CIA and that he may even have planned to report back upon his return from Iran. The National Iranian American Council, a lobby group which often amplifies the Islamic Republic’s arguments and positions, largely ignores Levinson’s captivity, perhaps feeling his U.S. government service is original sin. That NIAC supported the release of Iranians convicted of real crimes but ignores Levinson shows their true colors. Kerry may very well privately agree, blaming the CIA more than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for what transpired.
This logic ignores the fact that the Obama administration agreed to release and/or drop charges against those arrested in the United States while seeking to bypass sanctions in order to bolster Iran’s covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. None of the Iranians involved were autonomous: at the very least, they were working directly or indirectly for Iranian intelligence or the Islamic Republic’s military.
There are three possibilities to explain Kerry’s actions:
- He knew Iranian authorities murdered Levinson and chose to remain quiet so as not to derail diplomacy;
- He believed Levinson alive but was unwilling to push recalcitrant Iranian counterparts; or
- He did not know Levinson’s fate and refused to use his leverage to clarify it.
While the American military prides itself on not leaving men behind, Kerry, his chief-of-staff who accompanied him in negotiations, and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, who helped negotiate the release of the hostages, made a conscious decision to leave a man behind. That decision represents the worst of the State Department. Let us hope the Trump administration will be clear with regard to Levinson’s status and fate. There is nothing wrong with truth nor dealing with the reality of Iran’s regime rather than the sanitized version imagined by Kerry for his own purposes.