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Reflections on the Anniversary of the U.S. Embassy Takeover

04 Nov 2010 14:00No Comments

[ primer ] Q&A with John Limbert

Nov. 4 is the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover. You were a U.S. diplomat in Tehran and then a hostage. Over the next year, what are the prospects that Washington and Tehran can move beyond three decades of hostile relations symbolized by that episode?

It is long past time that both sides awake to the reality that 30 years of chest-thumping has produced little beyond sore chests. Past efforts to move the relationship to something more productive, however, have foundered on misunderstandings, mistrust, and the assumption that anything the other side agrees to must be bad for us.

Two American hikers are scheduled to be tried soon. What do you think Iran's intent is? Do you think this is likely to be one step closer to their release or to a longer imprisonment?

It is a puzzle to me what Iran wants to achieve with this drama. In a rational world, the Iranian court will fine Shane and Josh for illegal entry and send them home. If relations had been halfway normal, this whole incident would have been resolved long ago by consular officials from both sides.

When you look back, are there any broader lessons to be learned from the 1979-1981 hostage ordeal, when 52 Americans were held 444 days?

Yes. At this Halloween season -- look what can happen when you ignore the ghosts of history. Of course the true victims of the whole incident were the Iranian people, who, as a result of the accompanying fury and blindness, have had to endure 30 years of war, violence, and rule by the most extreme and intolerant elements in their society.

Could it happen again?

In a small way it already has, with the pointless detention of the young hikers. Such incidents, albeit in different forms, will be repeated unless both side deal honestly with the past.

John Limbert is the Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

Related reading by John Limbert | Iran Primer: The Obama Administration

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