By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday offered a rare $1 million reward for information leading to the safe return of former agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 and is believed to be held hostage in the area.
The FBI made the announcement almost five years after Levinson, a former FBI special agent, disappeared from Kish Island in Iran while on a business trip. Iran's government has said previously it has no information about his whereabouts.
"While we believe Bob is alive, we are concerned about his health," James McJunkin, head of the FBI's Washington field office, told reporters. "I hope this reward encourages anyone with information - no matter how insignificant they may think it is - to come forward ... it may be the clue we need."
Last December a video was released of Levinson looking gaunt and appealing for help because he was "running very quickly out of diabetes medicine."
Levinson's wife, Christine, joined the press conference in Washington where the reward was announced to plead for information, flanked by FBI Director Robert Mueller as well as dozens of current and former agents.
"Knowing that Bob is being held against his will and not being able to help him has been extremely difficult for our family," she said. "There are no words to describe the nightmare my family and I have been living every day."
Washington cut diplomatic relations with Tehran shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and the two countries are at odds over a range of issues, including Iran's disputed nuclear program.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a year ago that there were indications that Levinson was being held in Southwest Asia and she sought Iran's help in getting information about him. Tehran said then it would try to assist in locating him.
Clinton issued a statement on Tuesday calling on "Iran to uphold its promise of assistance and help safely return Mr. Levinson to the United States."
Levinson, who will turn 64 this week, traveled to Iran on March 8, 2007, and had been working as a private investigator for several major corporations. He retired from the FBI in 1998 after a 22-year career.
The FBI said it plans to launch a publicity campaign this week in Southwest Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, using radio and billboards to seek information about Levinson.
McJunkin acknowledged the FBI had little to no information about his suspected captors, their demands, reasons for the apparent kidnapping or Levinson's whereabouts. "Personally, it's been very frustrating," he said.
The $1 million reward is rare in kidnapping cases and is being funded by the U.S. Justice Department, McJunkin said.
However, he said there was no connection between the reward and the tensions between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear development, which Western powers believe is aimed at building a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied such plans.
The United States and European Union placed tough sanctions aimed at Iran's economy as part of a bid to force Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
(Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Paul Simao and Bill Trott)