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US believes ex-FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 has died: Family

Relatives of Robert Levinson say Trump administration believe he died while in custody in Iran
Levinson was last seen alive in 2010 video (AFP/File photo)

The Trump administration says former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran during an unauthorised CIA mission in 2007, died while in Tehran's custody, according to a statement from his family.

Levinson's family on Wednesday posted on Facebook details of intelligence they had received from US officials concluding that the former agent had died.

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While they did not say when he died, his family said that it had happened prior to the global coronavirus pandemic.

"We recently received information from US officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody," his family said in the statement.

Abbas Mousavi, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Thursday that Levinson had left the country years ago.

"Based on credible evidence, Levinson has left Iran years ago for an unspecified destination," Mousavi said, according to state television.

"In the past years Iran has tried to find out his state but could not find any signs of him being alive."

Earlier, a spokesman for the Iranian mission at the United Nations also tweeted on Thursday that Iran had no knowledge about the whereabouts of Levinson.

"Iran has always maintained that its officials have no knowledge of Mr. Levinson's whereabouts, and that he is not in Iranian custody. Those facts have not changed," tweeted Alireza Miryousefi.

'I don’t accept that he's dead'

US President Donald Trump said he had not been told that Levinson was dead.

“I don’t accept that he’s dead,” Trump told a briefing of his coronavirus task force.

“It’s not looking great, but I won’t accept that he’s dead. They haven’t told us that he’s dead, but a lot of people are thinking that that’s the case.”

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said later that an investigation was still going on but "we believe that Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago".

Tehran denied knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts last November, when it said a legal case involving him was under way at a revolutionary court that handles security-related cases.

Rogue operation

Levinson is the longest-held hostage in Iran, according to the FBI. For years, the US had masked his undercover mission, saying he was a private citizen in Iran on business.

The Associated Press later uncovered that Levinson was on an unauthorised CIA mission, being paid by a team of analysts with no authority to run operations.

Three of the analysts who took part in the mission were later forced out of the agency.

The rogue operation in 2007 became a major government scandal because even after the White House was made aware, it did not change its narrative that Levinson was a private citizen conducting business in Iran.

Levinson's family blamed both the Iranian and US governments for his death.

However, the family thanked members of the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and O'Brien.

The former American agent was last seen alive in a 2010 video in which he was pleading for help. He was also seen in photographs wearing an orange jumpsuit.