An Opening Move in Iran Diplomacy: Prisoner Swap?

Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week invited Iran to show its willingness "to engage meaningfully" with the international community—language that seemed to signal the Obama administration was open to a dialogue with Tehran's leaders. But what's the first step?

One possibility, according to U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters: the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared nearly two years ago after flying to Kish Island, an Iranian free-trade zone in the Persian Gulf, to investigate cigarette smuggling for his private consulting firm. Ever since, the Iranians have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. But officials have received sketchy reports that Levinson is languishing in an Iranian prison. "I believe he is alive and he's being held by the Iranians," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NEWSWEEK. Nelson, who represents Levinson's family, has pressed the issue with Obama officials, and when he raised it with Hillary Clinton during her confirmation hearings, she replied that the former agent's release would be "an extraordinary opportunity" for the Iranians to prove "there is a new attitude" in Tehran.

Some U.S. intel officials believe Tehran might be open to releasing Levinson, perhaps as part of a swap for several Iranian diplomats who were seized by U.S. military forces in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. (The captive Iranians are suspected members of the hard line Revolutionary Guard and were seized shortly before Levinson vanished.) Whenever Levinson's name has come up in the past, Iranian diplomats have quickly switched the subject to the Erbil captives—a possible sign they were interested in an exchange, according to one U.S. intel official, who added that the idea is "worth exploring." Obama officials declined to comment on the matter. "Our policy on Iran is under review, and we're not going to discuss details until that is completed," a State Department spokesman said.