The Washington Diplomat / February 2013
By Larry Luxner
John W. Limbert hasn’t been back to Iran since the day he was airlifted out of Tehran with his 51 fellow U.S. hostages, ending a 444-day ordeal that forever scarred relations between the United States and its former Middle East ally.
“It was not as long as it was supposed to be,” Limbert says jokingly of his assignment in Tehran, “but it was longer than I wanted it to be.”
The experience left an indelible mark on the veteran diplomat, who would go on to serve at American embassies in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, Mauritania and Sudan. In 2010, Limbert ended his Foreign Service career as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iran — a position that had never existed before — and is now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he teaches a course on U.S.-Iran relations.
Limbert, 69, talked to The Washington Diplomat from the comfort of his Arlington, Va., home, surrounded by mementoes of a life lived abroad: exotic wood carvings from French-speaking Guinea; intricate Persian carpets from Tabriz and Isfahan; brass coffee pots from Saudi Arabia.
The retired diplomat, who shares the house with his Iranian wife Parvaneh, was born and raised in the District, graduated from Tenleytown’s Woodrow Wilson High School, and has a doctorate in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. The two met in the mid-1960s when Limbert, then a Peace Corps volunteer, taught English at a school in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj where Parvaneh was also working.
Although Limbert joined the Foreign Service in 1973, he says it wasn’t until five years later — as a junior officer in Saudi Arabia — that his eyes were opened to the reality of politics in the Middle East.
“It’s 1978, the Iranian Revolution is brewing, and a congressman comes to visit Saudi Arabia and I’m his escort,” he recalled. “A Saudi military official gets up and does a very professional briefing about his country’s strategic location. On his map, Saudi Arabia is surrounded by red Marxist states — Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Saudis believed the Iranian Revolution was communist-inspired, so their conclusion was, ‘We are surrounded.’ I ask him, ‘That’s a very interesting map. How did you put all that together?’ He says, ‘Our American advisors did it for us.’ That’s when I lost my political virginity. The Americans were whispering in the Saudis’ ear something both sides wanted to hear.”
More than 33 years after the hostage crisis, U.S.-Iranian relations have not budged. Iran is still on the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting countries, along with Cuba, Sudan and Syria — even as other nations like Libya and North Korea have been taken off that blacklist.
The United States still has no embassy in Tehran, not even a U.S. Interests Section like it has in Havana, and there’s no indication that the two countries even talk to each other.
“We do have so-called official ways of passing messages. We can go to their U.N. representative in New York, or we can go through the Swiss Embassy, which represents us in Tehran. But in terms of officials talking directly to officials, the last time that happened was 2009, when then-Undersecretary Bill Burns spoke with the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva.”
Since then, said Limbert, “there’s almost no talking” between the two sides — a black hole of knowledge that he says has led to mutual demonization, which, as he put it in a 2012 op-ed, “has imputed the worst possible motives to the other, creating an adversary both superhuman (devious, powerful, and implacably hostile) and subhuman (violent, irrational, and unthinking).”
“I expected better relations by now,” said the diplomat, who first fell in love with Iran during a 1962 visit there to see his parents, who were working in Iran on contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I can’t say I was optimistic, but I guess it’s part of your training as a Foreign Service officer. Your profession is based on communications, not necessarily friendship — if only to make your own position clear and to listen to what the other side is saying. The U.S. and Iran do have things to talk about, regardless whether Iran is a monarchy or an Islamic republic.”
One of those things, of course, is Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons — a subject Limbert says has been greatly exaggerated, largely to create a convenient bogeyman where none exists.
“In teaching my course about Iran, I have to explain that the phrase ‘Iranian threat’ is actually two words,” he joked. “To put it very simply, politicians have found it useful to blow up, exploit and play on the threat from Iran. The question I always put to my students is, what is this threat? Where does it come from? What lies behind all this talk? There’s a great deal of debate over this in Israel, a debate which is not reflected here. For Israel, [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is the gift that keeps on giving. If you need an enemy to get votes, what better one than him?”
As for the rabid anti-American populist’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map, Limbert said this kind of rhetoric has even generated criticism within Iran. “It was interesting that when he came to New York last September for the U.N. General Assembly, he toned down some of this stuff. Maybe it was finally getting through that this was counterproductive,” said Limbert, who recently traveled to Israel with his wife to discuss Iran at several venues including Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Diaspora.
Regardless of Ahmadinejad’s blustery rhetoric, Limbert points out that the nuclear program is not his domain. “The president of Iran was never that powerful. His job is to cut ribbons and officiate at ceremonies. The sooner Ahmadinejad learns that, the easier a time he’s going to have,” Limbert said, observing that the president “couldn’t even visit one of his colleagues in prison.”
The real power lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who’s frequently clashed with Ahmadinejad. But analysts are torn as to whether Khamenei sees nuclear weapons as Iran’s salvation in its struggle for regional influence over Sunni heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and U.S. allies like Israel — or whether he has no intentions of building a bomb and really believes what he says, that “holding these arms is a sin as well as useless, harmful and dangerous.”
Limbert said he’s not seen anything that convinces him Iran — which argues it has a legal right to nuclear enrichment as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
“What’s clear is that the Iranians have not been particularly forthcoming about their nuclear program. But the reasoning I often hear is that one, the Iranians are doing something with nuclear power and enrichment. Two, the Iranians are bad people. Therefore, they must be building a nuclear weapon.”
However, such a policy “doesn’t do anything for them in terms of what they say is the threat to their survival,” according to Limbert.
“I believe them when they say the threat is internal — the same thing that brought down [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak and [Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali, and what’s bringing down [Syria’s Bashar al-] Assad. They call it sedition, fomented by outside powers. If that’s true, then a nuclear weapon serves no purpose. You can’t use a nuclear weapon against street demonstrators.”
Complicating things is Iran’s lack of allies in the region.
“Historically linguistically, religiously, Iran is an island surrounded by Turks, Arabs, Pakistanis and Sunnis. It’s not any of those things. They’re really by themselves,” Limbert said. “Add to that some monumentally bad diplomacy where they managed to make enemies left and right, and you have a country which essentially has only two friends: Syria and Armenia. And if Assad fails, Iran could be facing a new Sunni regime in Syria. That’s probably the worst nightmare. Iran then loses its access to Hezbollah, one of its few friends in the neighborhood and probably its only friend in the Arab world.”
For years, Limbert noted, Iran used the Palestinian cause “as its passport into the Arab world” — providing missiles for Hamas jihadists in the Gaza Strip and offering, among other things, bounties for the families of suicide bombers who killed Israeli civilians. “That worked for a time, but when they end up supporting Assad, who is murdering Arabs and Sunnis, that passport doesn’t have much validity anymore.”
With fewer friends on the outside and more disgruntled citizens on the inside, pressure is coming at the regime from all sides. Protests erupted in 2009 after Ahmadinejad handily won the election, though the government was able to clamp down on dissenters and the controversial president retains the support of many rural, older voters. Since then, however, unprecedented U.S. and European sanctions have choked off energy profits and pounded Iran’s economy, causing the value of its currency to tank. And with Iran heading into another presidential election this June, there’s no doubt U.S. officials hope the country’s dire economic straits spark a renewed challenge to the regime.
But Limbert says that while the U.S. government can wish for regime change, it shouldn’t intervene to make that wish come true. He’s not at all optimistic when it comes to Washington’s promises of bringing democracy to the Middle East. And he certainly doesn’t think the United States can or should foment a counter-revolution to topple the Islamic Republic (the last time Washington interfered, to prop up the embattled Reza Shah Pahlavi, an Islamic revolution ensued, resulting in the current republic).
“Look at our record. It usually has terrible consequences. I personally would love to see a more humane government in Iran. But is that the U.S. government’s task? I don’t think we’re capable of it. Our record in other places suggests that when we make such attempts, the results are usually not very good.”
He added that in Iran, “you have an entrenched power structure that over the years has become more and more detached from the concerns of the people. They’re concerned with enriching themselves. Either it collapses of its own weight or it does not.”
On that note, the current joke in Tehran is that “Tunis could, Iran could not.” The double entendre is funny because the word “Tunis” in Farsi means “could.”
A candid, colorful academic at heart who aspired to become a teacher rather than a diplomat, Limbert has written four books — all on the subject of Iran. He’s a past president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) and is also the proud recipient of the State Department’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, as well an Award for Valor, presented to all the hostages after their 14-month ordeal.
“I’ve often said that I don’t so much blame the 20-year-olds who did this, because they were acting on emotion,” Limbert told The Diplomat. “If there’s blame, it’s the people who should have known better, who instead of stepping in, in fact ended up supporting it. In fact, they still debate it. Officially, they claim the embassy takeover was a good thing. They celebrate it every year on the fourth of November. This is chutzpah.”
Memories of that traumatic ordeal came flooding back with the recent release of Ben Affleck’s award-winning political thriller, “Argo.” Affleck not only directs the movie but also plays its protagonist, Tony Mendez — a CIA “exfiltration” specialist who travels to Iran to fly out six trapped Americans disguised as Canadian movie scouts filming a fake Hollywood sci-fi production.
Limbert and Mendez spoke at a recent Washington screening of “Argo” for 300 diplomats, dignitaries and others that was organized by AFSA (also see “Tony Mendez: The CIA Spy Behind ‘Argo’ in the January 2013 edition of the Diplomatic Pouch online). “Argo” was based on a true story, though the ruling mullahs in Iran likely aren’t fans of Affleck’s latest movie.
“A number of Iranians have said this is a terrible film. They say it shows them as violent, irrational and fanatic at the time,” Limbert said. “All I can do is say that at the time, they were violent, irrational and fanatic. The good thing is that it’s forced people to confront a very ugly part of their own past.”
Limbert jokes that the Iranians follow the “Cleopatra policy” — and that Cleopatra was the queen of denial.
“Now they claim they never held guns to anybody’s head, that there were no mock executions, that nobody was ever beaten up. The longer time goes on, the more this narrative has taken root. Even President Ahmadinejad has bought into this version of events,” he said.
Limbert said he sees two currents within the Iranian-American community: one that supports dialogue with Tehran, and the other that rejects any interaction with the Islamic Republic and still blames Jimmy Carter for all the loss of U.S. influence in Iran.
As for Carter, now 88, Limbert says, “I’m very careful about criticizing what he did or didn’t do. After all, he did get us out of there alive. It was his presidency — basically [then Deputy Secretary of State] Warren Christopher — that negotiated our release.”
However, Limbert did say that Washington’s decision to grant asylum to the Shah for cancer treatment was like throwing him and his former hostages under the bus. At the time, Reza Shah Pahlavi was facing mounting opposition in Iran for stifling dissent and being a puppet of the United States. Carter was reluctant to grant the unpopular, cancer-stricken ally entry to the United States, for fear of reprisal against Americans in Iran, but he eventually relented, reportedly on humanitarian grounds.
“The U.S. government had been told, ‘If you admit the Shah, you can kiss your mission in Tehran goodbye one way or another. This was not rocket science,” Limbert said.
Both Carter and then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (who later resigned to protest the failed secret mission to rescue the hostages) opposed giving the Shah safe haven, but Limbert claims Henry Kissinger and former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller were pushing for it.
“Kissinger denies it but I think he’s lying. His friends were pushing too. Vance didn’t agree, and Carter didn’t agree. The embassy told Vance it was a bad idea. On Oct. 25, 1979, the U.S. government learns after five and a half years that the Shah has cancer, and needs urgently to come to the U.S. for treatment. Vance changes his mind and says we have to let him in. Carter is now by himself,” he said.
“Here’s where the Benghazi parallel comes in. Having made that decision, knowing that would put us in danger, why did he leave us there? The answer is the Cold War, and Iran was the prize. We had competed with the Soviets there since 1945. We were not about to pack up and leave, and turn the whole place over to our Cold War enemies. From what I read, [former national security chief Zbigniew] Brzezinski still believed that opposing the Soviets could be the basis of some understanding with the government in Iran.”
The recent independent review of last year’s violent attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya — which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others — doesn’t specifically mention the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But Limbert says “there are definitely echoes of Tehran” in the report.
“The issue is, what’s the balance between mission and safety? Does it require you to be present, to have people on the ground in places that are very dangerous? And if it does, then what measures do you need to take? You’ll never make people perfectly safe, but if you can’t take those measures, you should not be there.”
We asked Limbert if the United States should renew its diplomatic presence in Iran, one of the most virulently anti-American climates in the world. Could the State Department, for example, open a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran, sort of like the interests section Washington maintains in Havana, under the protection of the Swiss Embassy?
“This was talked about at the end of the Bush administration,” he said. “I would say yes, if we could have some reasonable assurance that the first time there was a disagreement, we don’t have 1979 all over again. That possibility is still there. It happened to our British friends [in 2011 when Iranian protesters stormed their embassy]. It might have been people who were nostalgic for the good old revolutionary days. I would put this condition: The least we should ask is that the Iranians no longer mark Nov. 4 as something to celebrate.”
He added: “The experience of what I went through was truly awful, and it’s still going on. But the question is, what’s in the interests of our country? For 33 years, we’ve been trading insults, threatening each other, calling each other names, and it hasn’t changed anything. Do we like each other? No, probably not. But you don’t have to. You talk to your neighbor because you’re better off talking than not talking.”
There is a good chance that with Iran increasingly squeezed by sanctions and Obama embarking on his second term with a renewed mandate, the talks over Iran’s nuclear program will restart very soon.
Iran has indicated a willingness to return to the table, though Washington and Tehran remain far apart in their bargaining positions. Iran insists that negotiations encompass a broader agenda, which Limbert supports. He points out that for many Iranians, resentful of what they see as U.S. bullying, the nuclear issue is a source of national pride. A wide-ranging discussion could give Iran’s leaders a way to save face if they have to make concessions. Plus, he says, there are important areas — Afghanistan, drug trafficking, etc. — where the two enemies could find common ground. But Western powers want to deal strictly with the nuclear question, wary that an expanded focus would be just another stalling tactic to let Iran quietly fortify its nuclear program.
Nevertheless, Limbert says President Obama’s re-election and his nomination of Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state gives him some hope when it comes to U.S.-Iran relations.
“Hillary [Clinton] is a very skilled secretary of state and I have great respect for her, but her instincts are very political. Kerry is the son of a Foreign Service officer. If you listen to him, he talks like a Foreign Service officer. And Vietnam gives him credibility.”
Pundits are debating how much that war might shape Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state (and Chuck Hagel’s as defense secretary, if he’s confirmed). Likewise, being held captive in Iran for more than a year has had a profound impact on Limbert’s career, although the pragmatic diplomat has never turned his back on the country he fell in love with 40 years ago. He still ardently believes in engagement over confrontation.
For the time being, though, neither Limbert nor his wife are allowed to set foot on Iranian soil.
“None of the former hostages have gone back to Iran,” he said, adding that his two grown children have not been back to the country of their birth since they were 9 and 7. “That’s a red line for the Iranian government. I don’t know why. I think we remind them of something they’d rather forget.”