The mystery surrounding a retired U.S. FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than 4 1/2 years ago has deepened with the release of a video showing him held hostage by an unknown group.
The video, released by Robert Levinson's family, was e-mailed to them in November 2010. Its existence until now had been kept secret by the family and the media at the request of the U.S. government, which has sought to work with Tehran to secure his release.
But now, as relations between Washington and Tehran have soured over Iran's nuclear program and tough new U.S. sanctions, Levinson's wife Christine publicly released the video on December 9 in the apparent hope that it will raise concern over her husband's captivity and encourage whoever is holding him to open direct negotiations.
The year-old video shows a haggard but seemingly unharmed Levinson, who is long-retired from the FBI, sitting before a concrete wall in an unidentified location.
"I have been held hear for 3 1/2 years," he says in the 54-second video. "I am not in very good health."
Levinson, now 63, adds that he has been treated well but that he needs "the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for 3 1/2 years."
WATCH: A video of captive American Robert Levinson, which was e-mailed to his familiy over a year ago.
Just who is holding Robert Levinson, and what they want, has never been clear since he disappeared while visiting Iran's Kish Island in March 2007.
His family says he visited the island -- which does not require a visa to enter -- as part of a private investigation into cigarette smuggling.
Since his disappearance, there have been two theories to explain his going missing.
One is that he was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to hold as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington.
The other is that he was kidnapped by a criminal group linked to his investigative activities.
The past 4 1/2 years have done little to help clarify his fate. The Associated Press says U.S. officials have told its reporters privately that Washington still has no idea who is holding Levinson, where he is, or who holds the key to bringing him home.
The details AP provides about the video only add to the puzzle. The news agency says investigators have determined that the video was routed through an Internet address in Pakistan, suggesting that Levinson might have been held there at the time it was made.
According to AP, officials say Pashtun wedding music is playing faintly in the background of the video. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, over Iran's eastern border.
AP adds that photographs of Levinson that were sent by his captors a few months after the video -- and also kept secret -- contain "hints" that Levinson might have been in Afghanistan at the time they were made.
A Valuable Commodity
This raises the possibility that whoever held Levinson initially may have moved him out of Iran or even sold him to militant groups.
A U.S. hostage is regarded as a valuable commodity by many enemies of Washington, who may seek to exchange him for anything from diplomatic concessions, to the release of prisoners or the payment of a ransom.
AP reports that the secret receipt of the video a year ago prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce publicly in March that Levinson was alive and urged the Iranians to help find him.
The news agency also reports that the video helped initiate a series of "discreet discussions" between U.S. and Iranian officials, "conversations that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in September were producing good results."
Whether the release of the video can help advance Levinson's cause remains to be seen.
The only immediate certainty is that it only underlines how little is clear about his case or his whereabouts today.
based on an AP story and video