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Full circle: Former hostage to tackle US-Iran relations

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

12 Nov 2009 22:3814 Comments
limbert.jpg[ dispatch ] A quarter of a century ago, David Mack was the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and serving under him as consul general in Dubai was an experienced foreign service officer who spoke fluent Persian and Arabic. The Islamic revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a fresh memory then, and Mack recalls that Tehran's intelligence service had taken to keeping a close watch on the U.S. consulate in Dubai, a city which welcomed many thousands of Iranians, from political refugees who'd fled Iran to Iranian businessmen who used Dubai as a base of operations. The new consul general in Dubai, Mack remembers, received a steady stream of calls from many of those Iranians.

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.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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14 Comments

Wow, what a great video.

M. / November 12, 2009 12:44 AM

Limbert is the perfect appointment. Finally, State has someone with expertise, who understands the nuances of Iranian politics, which is essential to changing the dynamics of US-IRI relations.

ehsan / November 12, 2009 1:49 AM

Selling out human rights and following policy of "appeasement" in negotiation with the mullahs will not bring peace and good relationship with the mullahs. The "appeasement" of the mullahs by Europeans in the last 30 years has not worked. Why do you think it will work this time? The mullahs need "Great Satan" boggy man for their survival. They need to chant "death to America", "death to Israel" to energies their thugs! They will never kiss and make up with the "Great Satan"!!

Iranians are on the streets trying to sweep this murderous regime to the dust bin of history, let's not sell them out to the mullahs.

massoud Taheri / November 12, 2009 5:26 AM

I am totaly agree with mr. Taheri. lets support Iranian people not the murderous regime.

babak / November 12, 2009 6:11 PM

Well, Massoud and Babak, we currently have a political divide going on right now in Iran. And according to the WorldPublicOpinion poll, 80% of Iranians in Iran see Ahmadinejad as their legitimate leader, and over 90% believe in their system of government (in your terms, "the mullahs").

So what are you saying? That our US leaders should recognize a vocal political minority of between 10-20 percent over the apparent wishes of the "silent majority"? Or do you somehow think your own personal grudges entitle you to impose your own beliefs on people back in the motherland?

Anyway, I also applaud the Limbert appointment. Apparently, Khamenei does, too, as he put up a video on his official website of an old 1980 exchange they once had in Tehran. Which hopefully is a good omen.

Pirouz / November 13, 2009 3:28 AM

As for Mr. Limbert's opinion of the Iranian regime, I think Iran has always been pragmatic. Their support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories, given the US and the Israeli policy towards Iran, is completely pragmatic. It is no wonder, therefore, that as a pragmatic policy the regime does not object to China's conflict with its Uighur Muslim minority, or Russia's suppression of the Chechens. Survival for the regime is it and they do anything to survive, including mass killings if that's the only way to stay in power.

Anonymous / November 14, 2009 1:42 AM

What Mr. Tahri and Babak fail to realize is that the my country cant afford any more conflicts in the region. And in order to avoid another conflict US must get its priority straight and solve the nuclear crisis. I believe it is in Iran's interest (and the opposition's interest) if this nuclear crisis is solved. We cant afford another war! I dont think you want one either.

Anthony / November 14, 2009 5:50 PM

Mr. Taheri, personaly, I think you completely sensed the problem.
Unfortunately, me and you, not only fall into the minority, but even with the most advanced technical explanation, can not make the rest of these people recognize the core of the problem. And that lies in us. And no one else.

mahshid / November 15, 2009 3:56 AM

In the video above, Mr. Limbert says there is no doubt that the Shah was a criminal. Given the admission of prominent supporters of the Islamic Republic, from Montazeri to Karoubi, that its brutal oppression surpasses the Shah's, is Mr. Limbert willing to say with equal certainty that Khamenei is a criminal -- Or is hypocracy a requirement of his new job?

S Hildebrand / November 16, 2009 1:18 PM

Praises by Ayatollah Khamenei and the likes of Mr. Parsi do not seem to be the best of references for someone who is suppoesed to be the point man representing U.S. interests against the regime in Tehran.

Anonymous / November 17, 2009 2:07 AM

As an Iranian and a woman in particular, my life has never been the same ever since the idiocy of 1979 that brought us the Barbaric Republic.One can not expect Mr. Limbert to favor the Shah under those circumstances and in the presence of a murderer such as mullah Khamenei.May God's light shine on the Shah's resting place. May the good lord save the country he loved and cherished.The Iranian people can not wait to rid themselves of these sub-humans who have taken over their land.

Parvaneh / November 17, 2009 4:11 PM

I am not sure where Pirouz gets his statistics! 80% supporting Ahmadi!!!!?? You got to be kidding us, sir. If it was not for the oil money and the thugs it pays for, you will not witness this barbaric regime to last a week. Why would they resort to such acts of violence and bloodshed as we have come to see, if they had so much support and were not afraid of the people and their peacefull demonstrations? There are 80 confirmed dead so far in the streets in the hands of Basijy thugs. Thousands more imprisoned, tortured and executed. Those supporting the blood sucking regime in Tehran, live off the blood of their country men and women, and that's the only reason for their support. Most Iranians, although Moslim and religious, do not belive Khamenei is any saint!! In fact they do not belive in Islamic Republic as neither Islamic nor reupblic.
Belive in the power of non-violent Green revolution. It holds the future of Iran as it sends the reactionery regime to the same hell they have come from....

Hamid / November 18, 2009 12:25 AM

Pirouz,your comments all over this site are certainly all of a piece.Lets see. Ahmadinijad won fair and square in a'diamond jewel of an election'that is the most glorius episode of the revolution. Iran has no problems except those caused by foreigners especially the USA.Jafari = Abe Lincoln.Wouldn't you do better on Press TV or Fars News. Take a look at their comments section.Very thin and no negative ones.While this site (US based) is thriving. When the great Spanish writer, Unamuno, had to sit through a long rabid evening of Fascist rhetoric he responded "you may conquer but you will not convince". 70 years later Franco is a bad memory and Spaniards were never 'convinced'.

pirooz / November 18, 2009 4:38 AM

Pirouz November 13, 2009... Toady Nov 19th, 2009 , your idle Ahmadijehad could not gather enough people to seat one row of Tabriz stadium where he was scheduled to give a speech.Such is the misery of the Barbaric Republic. Shame on sell outs like you.

Amiri R. / November 20, 2009 12:58 AM