U.S. President Donald Trump has welcomed reports from Iran about a possible breakthrough in the case involving the disappearance of a former FBI agent in Iran in 2007.
Trump wrote in a November 11 tweet, "It would be a very positive step" If Iran could " turn over to the U.S. kidnapped former FBI Agent Robert A. Levinson, who has been missing in Iran for 12 years."
An Associated Press report said on November 9 that Iran has told the United Nations for the first time its courts have an open case for Levinson. AP also drew attention to a December 2013 report saying Levinson may have been "on an unauthorized CIA mission" to Iran when he disappeared.
The 2013 AP report said, “Levinson in fact had been on a mission for CIA analysts who had no authority to run spy operations. Levinson's family had received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work, while the agency forced out three veteran analysts and disciplined seven others."
The U.S. recently increased the reward for information leading to Levinson's safe return from $5 million to $25 million.
On Sunday Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman directly acknowledged for the first time that there is a "missing person" case open at the Revolutionary Court in Iran about Levinson. This comes while for 12 years Tehran had been denying Levinson's presence in Iran.
A veteran FBI agent with a good track record of clamping down on transnational crime, Levinson disappeared in Kish Island. He was reportedly investigating a major case of cigarette smuggling in Iran.
An Iranian analyst in the United States, Ali Afshari, wrote in 2013 that Levinson went to Kish after meeting two Iranians in Istanbul without taking precautionary measures or asking for support from the CIA.
According to Afshari, two of the relatives of a former Iranian President and a former commander in Chief of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, were allegedly involved in major cases of cigarette smuggling at the time, although he stresses that this cannot be verified independently. He also notes that 30 percent of the cigarettes smoked in Iran are smuggled from other countries.
Afshari characterizes Levinson's trip to Kish Island as a high-risk gamble. He also noted that Levinson had appeared in a documentary film about the Russian Mafia before his disappearance.
Meanwhile, Iranian opposition figure Iraj Mesdaghi wrote in a report that a high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer and a U.S. criminal living in exile in Iran lured Levinson to Kish Island, a free trade zone, where the Iranian government does not require visas from foreign travellers.
However, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman said that Levinson "has no judicial or criminal case in any Islamic Republic court whatsoever." It is however not clear why the case should be open at the Revolutionary Court which usually handles cases such as espionage.
He added Iran was only interested in the humanitarian side of Levinson's story. According to the AP, "The U.S. is offering $25 million for information about what happened to Levinson"
The talk about the humanitarian side tipped many journalists to the possibility of a prisoner swap that Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had mentioned during a visit to New York this summer.
Iran hopes to return Iranian nanotechnologist Massoud Soleimani who has been in jail in the United States since October 2018. Two other Iranian scientists who were in jail in America have already been freed on bail.
A successful prisoner swap may open a new channel of communication between Tehran and Washington to sort out the long-standing issues over Tehran's nuclear and missile programs and its regional ambitions.
The only images of Levinson following his disappearance, or kidnapping as President Trump said, were released in 2010 and 2011. "Iran for years has offered contradictory statements about Levinson. His family is now suing Iran in U.S. federal court, alleging the Iranian government kidnapped him," the AP reported.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity said that the United States has reached out to Iran through intermediaries to find out if the statement made by the Foreign Ministry Spokesman represented a change in Iran's stance on the case. However, he said that the U.S. has not received any response yet.
There is a sentence at the end of President Trump's November 11 tweet: "At the same time, upon information & belief, Iran is & has been, enriching uranium. THAT WOULD BE A VERY BAD STEP!" It is not clear yet whether this is linked to the first part of his tweet about Levinson.
If Levinson if freed, this might be a significant development for Trump who is facing domestic challenges in his impeachment case.