Full circle: Former hostage to tackle US-Iran relations
by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.
12 Nov 2009 22:38
But Iran had a special reason to pay attention to the consul general in Dubai. He was John Limbert, the U.S. diplomat who'd been taken hostage in the embassy in Tehran and held for 444 days.
Today, Limbert is settling in as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, making him the chief partner of William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, who's been President Obama's point man on negotiating with Iran. Asked about Limbert after an appearance at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington on Tuesday, Burns seemed excited to be working with Limbert, who's returning to the State Department after retiring some years ago. "Oh, he's a wonderful man," says Burns.
Mack agrees. "He was a clever appointment," says Mack, in an interview. "The Iranians always try to parade their victimhood in talks. 'You did this and that to us,' they say. But they'll have a hard time doing that with John!" Mack says that Limbert has done a lot of strategic thinking about how to negotiate with Iran. "Though he was deprived of his liberty for 444 days, he has no grudges," says Mack. "But he is also totally without any illusions about Iran."
One thing about Limbert makes him stand out: he is the only U.S. diplomat or official who has had a private encounter with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Back in 1980, when Limbert was a hostage, Khamenei -- then a senior member of Iran's revolutionary leadership who would eventually become president of Iran -- visited Limbert to inquire about his well-being. According to Mack, when Khamenei asked if he needed anything, Limbert looked the cleric in the eye and said that he needed his "liberty." Limbert, says Mack, spent a lot of time during his captivity taking the measure of the band of students who were holding the U.S. diplomats. "Limbert's attitude was unique," says Mack. "He knows a lot about the religion of Islam. His approach to the students was, 'I am your teacher, and I am very disappointed that you have not learned your lessons well.'"
Iran-watchers in Washington are abuzz about Limbert's appointment, first reported last week in Politico by Laura Rozen. Just this fall, Limbert published a book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling with the Ghosts of History, that draws lessons from past diplomatic encounters with Iran, from the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945-1947 to the Mossadegh crisis of 1951-1953 through the fall of the Shah and the Iran-contra affair of the mid-1980s. In a talk at the U.S. Institute of Peace to release the book on September 23, Limbert declared his belief that talking with Iran required patience, persistence, and an understanding of Iran's specific characteristics.
In person, Limbert is self-effacing and genial, sporting a mustache that matches his graying hair and sets off his dark brown eyes. Not only is he a Persian speaker, but his wife, Parveneh, is an Iranian. Going into talks with Iran, he says, "If you assume you are going to fail, you will fail." Based on his long-time study of Iran, including those difficult months in captivity, Limbert says that above all Iran is motivated by domestic politics and by its leadership's desire to stay in power. The priority for the regime, he says, is political survival. In talks, the question is: "Does engaging with the United States ... help my survival in power, or does it open the floodgates to political change that could sweep me out of power?"
It's long past time to talk to Iran, Limbert says. "The motto of the Near East Bureau is: 'Now is not the time.' Well, there's always going to be some obstacles." He rejects the idea that the United States ought to focus on regime change or human rights in Iran at the expense of serious talks on U.S.-Iran relations. "That's what we've been stuck in for 30 years. We've been glaring at each other. It hasn't gotten us anywhere."
Iran, he says, "is torn between being a state and being a cause." Lately, however, he says that Iran has tempered its earlier militant defense of Islam everywhere. It was, he notes, silent on China's conflict with its Uighur Muslim minority, and it hasn't spoken out on Russia's suppression of the Chechens.
From 1969 to 1972, Limbert was an English instructor at Shiraz University. As a foreign service officer, Limbert served as charge d'affaires in Khartoum and as ambassador to Mauretania. His new position, as DAS for Iran, is a brand new post at the State Department, and in effect Limbert replaces the role of Dennis Ross, a hardliner on Iran, who earlier this year moved over to the White House. At the State Department, Limbert will report to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
In his book, Negotiating with Iran, Limbert writes:
"Talking to Iran, hard and disagreeable as it might be, is likely to be more productive than continuing almost three decades of noisy and sometimes violent confrontation. The U.S. should have no illusions. Discussions with the Islamic Republic are unlikely in the short run to have the kind of positive outcomes the U.S. might wish for. Iran is not going to change its behavior immediately and stop all of its misdeeds in the areas of terrorism, Middle East peace, human rights, and nuclear development. Yet through serious negotiations--even with a regime it dislikes and mistrusts--the U.S. may discover areas of common interest that lurk behind walls of hostility and suspicion."
Before going back to the State Department, Limbert served on the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a lobbying group that has forthrightly supported unconditional talks with Iran and that opposes further sanctions. In a statement, Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC, said that Limbert is the right person to implement President Obama's vision of a new start with Iran.
"With Limbert in the State Department tasked to complete that vision, history will be completed: A person who stood at the center of U.S.-Iran relations when they broke down 30 years ago, will lead the efforts to restore the broken ties. There are few people in the United States that know Iran as well as Ambassador Limbert. He's not only expert on Iranian foreign policy, but also on Iranian poetry, which matters a lot. I can't think of anyone more suitable for this job," said Parsi.
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