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Last man to see Robert Levinson before he vanished denies involvement in disappearance

Dawud Salahuddin is seen in the waiting area of a Tehran restaurant in a July 2006 file photo. Karl Vick / Washington Post via Getty Images

An American fugitive who met with Robert Levinson shortly before the former FBI agent vanished during a secret CIA- sponsored trip to Iran in 2007 has resurfaced, calling the U.S. intelligence agency "the world's leading terror apparatus" and denying any role in Levinson’s disappearance in an email sent to NBC News. 

Dawud Salahuddin, wanted by U.S. authorities in connection with the 1980 murder of an Iranian exile in Maryland, said in the email from Iran that Levinson's disappearance "has absolutely nothing to do with me." He also said he did not alert Iranian officials to a meeting he had with Levinson at a hotel on Kish Island on March 9, 2007. Salahuddin is the last person known to have seen the former FBI agent before he vanished, which has long prompting speculation that he may have tipped off Iranian officials to Levinson's visit.

"Personally, I have nothing to say except that I did not contact any Iranian official and would rather be dead than an asset for the world's leading terror apparatus, i.e, the CIA," Salahuddin wrote. He was responding to an NBC News inquiry into what he knew about Levinson’s fate in light of multiple press reports this week that the former FBI agent was on a secret, unauthorized mission for the CIA when he flew to Iran. 

Salahuddin, a native New Yorker and convert to Islam, fled to Iran after being accused of shooting Ali Tabatabai, a former U.S. press spokesman for the shah of Iran. 

Salahuddin was allegedly disguised as a postman, shooting the former diplomat in the doorway of his home in Bethesda , Md., three times. He later confessed to the murder, saying it was justified by “jihad,” in an interview in the New Yorker magazine in 2002 by Ira Silverman, a former NBC News producer.

Emails reveal safety concerns of missing CIA operative 2:32

In recent years, Salahuddin has reportedly been running the website of PressTV, an Iranian government TV station. 

Associates of Levinson have confirmed to NBC News that when he flew to Iran he was seeking information for the CIA about allegations that senior Iranian officials, including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had stolen millions of dollars in Iranian oil revenue and secretly invested the funds overseas. 

One source that Levinson had hoped to tap was Salahuddin, according to Silverman, who helped arrange the meeting between the two men. (Silverman had remained in touch with Salahuddin after penning the the 2002 article for the New Yorker.)

"They had a mutual interest in corruption," said Silverman in an interview Saturday. "I said to both of them, 'you guys might want to talk to each other.'" 

The meeting between Levinson and Salahuddin has been considered by U.S. law enforcement officials as key to unravelling the mystery of what happened to Levinson. Levinson’s wife and one of his sons even met with Salahuddin during a visit to Tehran in 2007, but the fugitive said little and provided no useful information, according to Dan Levinson, Robert Levinson’s son. 

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian government said Saturday that the disclosures about Levinson's CIA connections were a "scandal" because the new reports "contradict what U.S. officials as well as some congressmen were telling us." 

The spokesman, Alireza Miryousef, the chief of the press office for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, also repeated the Iranian government's longstanding mission that it knows nothing about Levinson's whereabouts. "In the past few years, (Iran) has been tring to find any clue about Levinson's situation for humanitarian and security reasons, but no success," Miryousefi said in an email to NBC News. 

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