American Spy in Iran: TIME Talks to the Assassin at the Center of the Robert Levinson Saga

In 2007, CIA contractor Robert Levinson met American exile Dawud Salahuddin on an Iranian resort island. Levinson was arrested and remains in Iranian detention. Salahuddin speaks out on the affair

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Dawud Salahuddin a.k.a. David Belfield

Correction appended: Dec. 16, 2013, 11:15 p.m. E.T.

Dawud Salahuddin, who was named David Belfield when he was growing up on Long Island, says he’s never regretted serving as an assassin for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Salahuddin converted to Islam as a young man, and in July 1980, disguised as a mailman, he shot and killed the spokesman for the exiled Shah of Iran in the foyer of the man’s home in Bethesda, Md. Salahuddin then fled to Iran, where he has lived ever since. But something else has been a burden on the conscience of the American fugitive for more than six years: the fate of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who was arrested by security officials while visiting Salahuddin in Iran in March 2007 and has not been seen since.

“Not anymore,” Salahuddin tells TIME. The revelation in several American news outlets over the weekend that Levinson was a CIA contractor aiming to turn Salahuddin into an agency “asset” leaves Salahuddin feeling only irritation and disappointment, he says. (The leaked news has also riled the CIA and politicians in Washington.) Salahuddin may have secrets worth knowing, but he has no desire to work for a U.S. government he says he despises as deeply as Iran’s.

“I’m not ready to trade on that kind of stuff,” Salahuddin says, speaking by telephone from his home in Karaj, a suburb of Tehran. “I consider that to be less than honorable. That’s all I’ll say about that. I might know some of those things, yeah, but I’m not a snitch, man.”

The obvious question, then, is Why did Salahuddin travel from suburban Tehran to the Persian Gulf island to meet a stranger?

“Pure curiosity,” says Salahuddin. “I had nothing in it. No financial incentives, nada. I was just curious.” According to Salahuddin, Levinson was up-front about his history with the FBI, where he specialized in tracking money laundering. But Levinson indicated he was working for private clients, not any government, Salahuddin says. “He told me he was there on behalf of British American Tobacco, and he wanted to talk to some Iranian officials about cigarette smuggling in the Persian Gulf,” Salahuddin says. “We talked. Very nice man, very personable, anybody would feel comfortable with him.”

“Of course I had no idea that he was misrepresenting himself. And what has come out in the last few days, about him trying to cultivate me as a source, came as a surprise to me, a very unpleasant surprise. I never had any desire to work for the American government in any way, surreptitiously or otherwise. I never intimated that.” Nor did Levinson broach the topic in some six hours of conversation, which continued over dinner, Salahuddin says. Salahuddin recalls the visiting American “regaled me with past cases” and made allusions to the wealth of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, “but as the hamburger commercial used to phrase it, ‘Where’s the beef?’ He said we would get down to brass tacks the next day but that day never came.”

Salahuddin is a well-known figure in expatriate circles in Tehran, the city where he has been marooned for more than half of his 63 years, waylaid on what he said was a promise by Iranian officials that he could continue on to China after fleeing the U.S. He has worked as a journalist for state news outlets, traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army, and parried overtures from Iranian security services to take on new assignments — including, he says, one request to hijack a Kuwaiti airliner and another to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

Articulate, insightful — he was mentored by Said Ramadan, longtime aide to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Banna — and perhaps a bit lonely, Salahuddin meets with reporters who seek him out, and has been profiled in documentaries, books and magazines. In 2001, he showed up in the role of a doctor in Kandahar, a feature film. He confirms he met Levinson through the author of a story for the New Yorker magazine, longtime NBC producer Ira Silverman, who had known Levinson as a source. Salahuddin and Levinson spoke two or three times by phone before Levinson proposed meeting in person on Kish, a resort island in the Persian Gulf foreigners can enter without a visa.

The timing was less than auspicious, Salahuddin recalls pointing out. Just three months earlier, U.S. forces had detained five Iranians in northern Iraq, setting the stage for Iranian reprisals. “But he decided not to [postpone], and I figured that he might know something that I didn’t know,” Salahuddin says. “But he didn’t.”

They met at the Maryam Hotel, where Levinson had booked them into the same room — a fatal error, Salahuddin came to realize. The presence of two Americans drew the attention of the Interior Ministry, whose officials routinely check hotel registrations. Both men were detained by ministry officials; Salahuddin spent the night in jail, and never saw Levinson again.

“The notion that it was some kind of brilliant move on the part of Iranian intelligence is bullshit,” Salahuddin says. “It was dumb luck. I’ve been around these guys long enough to know when they’re on to something and when they get lucky. And those guys were lucky. If they were so damn efficient, they’d be able to keep their nuclear scientists alive.”

Upon his release the next day, Salahuddin made inquiries, first at the hotel, and later with contacts in the security services, who signaled that Levinson was in their custody but would be released soon. When he wasn’t, Salahuddin took his story to the Financial Times, hoping to create pressure. He also met with Levinson’s wife when she traveled to Tehran, on a visit arranged by the Swiss embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. Salahuddin said Levinson had talked at length about her and their seven children. “High school sweethearts,” Salahuddin says. “Deeply attached to each other.”

Levinson’s whereabouts remain unknown. Iranian officials claim ignorance of the case, and there has been no sign of him since a proof-of-life video sent to his family in late 2010, followed by still photos early in 2011, in which Levinson looked gaunt and wore an orange jumpsuit.

Salahuddin faced consequences as well. He brushes off the “veiled threats” from Iran’s security apparatus that followed, but laments the loss of his passport, and with it the ability to pursue overseas business opportunities. In 2009, he was fired from his job as a digital journalist for the state news service Press TV after walking out on election night rather than report the rigged re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he says.

“Long story short, over the years I have lost a lot of respect for the Iranian system,” Salahuddin says. “It relies on blunt force. Iranians are afraid of their government. The basis of their rule is not love and respect for their rulers, it’s fear. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with power, corruption and enrichment.”

Which does not mean he’s keen to return to America. “What is in the States for me, man? Jail.”

He does, however, expect Levinson to surface, if he’s still alive. It’s the most plausible explanation, he says, for the news of Levinson’s ties finally surfacing, after years of news organizations voluntarily holding information back. “What I suppose is once [new President Hassan] Rouhani got into place they began to talk about this behind the scenes, and they figured out a way to get this guy released — I have no inside knowledge on this, it’s just the only thing that makes sense — allow both sides to save face and remove a potential impediment from the nuclear talks,” Salahuddin says. “So I expect that the guy will show up in a place like Muscat, clean-shaven, new suit, pair of Gucci loafers, and that’ll be the end of the story and both sides will save face … For the first time, the Americans and the Iranians actually need each other, in a very real way. The Iranians because they need to get out from under these sanctions. And for the Americans, Mr. Obama needs a legacy. These separate sets of interests may allow this man to surface.”

An earlier version of this article misstated that the film Kandahar was nominated for an Oscar. It was not.