The Trump administration on Monday imposed sanctions on two senior Iranian military officers for the abduction, detention and probable death of Robert Levinson, who was taken by Iran more than 13 years ago.
Mohammad Baseri and Ahmad Khazai of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, are being designated by the US Treasury for their involvement in the retired FBI agent's abduction from Kish Island, about March 9, 2007.
In March this year, his family said Mr Levinson, a private investigator, had died in prison at the age of 71.
“The abduction of Mr Levinson in Iran is an outrageous example of the Iranian regime’s willingness to commit unjust acts,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
The FBI said senior Iranian officials knew about and approved the plot to take Mr Levinson.
He went missing during an investigation into the skimming of Iranian oil profits.
“The government of Iran pledged to provide assistance in bringing Bob Levinson home, but it has never followed through," said FBI director, Christopher Wray.
"The truth is that Iranian intelligence officers, with the approval of senior Iranian officials, were involved in Bob’s abduction and detention.
The Iranian officers are being designated on the Global Terrorist list pursuant to executive order 13224.
Mr Baseri is described as a high-ranking officer "involved in counter-espionage activities in and outside Iran, who has been involved in sensitive investigations related to Iranian national security issues”.
Ahmad Khazai, also a high-ranking member of the ministry, has led agency delegations to other countries to assess the security situation.
Senior US officials did not explain the timing of the sanctions, 13 years after Mr Levinson’s disappearance.
But one spoke of the complex process of intelligence gathering and building a legal case against these officers.
A second US official cautioned the incoming Biden administration not to enter a nuclear deal with Iran without freeing the rest of the US hostages in the country.
“There shouldn’t ever again be a deal with Iran that doesn’t free US hostages,” the official said.
There are at least three US citizens being held hostage in Iran and one permanent resident.
“We will never stop [pushing] for their release no matter how many years go by,” one official said.
A Levinson family statement described the sanctions as one step towards achieving justice.
“Robert Levinson will never come home to his family alive because of the cruel, cynical and inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities ... our wonderful husband, father and grandfather died alone, thousands of miles from everyone he loved,” the family said.
“This is just one step in a long road towards achieving justice for him, but it is an important one,” they said, adding that the family wanted accountability.
A US judge ruled this year that Mr Levinson had been held and tortured by officials acting on behalf of the Iranian state.
The US had repeatedly called for his release and a reward of $25 million was offered for his return.
The White House said the sanctions open “the first public actions against the Iranian government to hold them accountable”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Iranian authorities to publicly disclose the fate of Mr Levinson.
“We call on the Iranian regime to provide a full accounting of Mr Levinson’s fate and we will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained by Iran are back home,” Mr Pompeo said.