World Views
1:13 pm
Tue January 14, 2014

Iranian Hostage-Turned-Ambassador: Still Optimistic, Would Love To Return

A group photograph of the former Iranian hostages shortly after their release. The 52 Americans spent a few days in the hospital prior to their departure for the United States.
Credit Johnson Babela / U.S. Department of Defense

Ambassador John Limbert and 51 diplomatic and military colleagues were taken prisoner in the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. They were released 444 days later as Ronald Reagan was sworn into office on January 20, 1981.

Limbert has never been back to Iran in the 33 years after he boarded the plane for Algeria, even though he married an Iranian woman and his children were born there. He’s now a private citizen, no longer works for the State Department, and has no prohibition on his travel to Iran. But he says he’s not welcome by the Islamic Republic.

Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Amb. John Limbert

“I think I remind them of a chapter of their past they would probably like to bury,” Limbert says. “I wouldn’t let them do that if I were there. I would be a walking reminder forcing them to confront something that they would prefer not to.”

As one of the few fluent Persian speakers among the hostages, Limbert met with the future Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an interview broadcast on Iranian state television.

In the video, interpreted by University of Oklahoma Iranian studies professor Afshin Marashi, Khamenei appears surprised by Limbert’s language skills, and asks about the hostages’ food, sanitation, and accommodations.

“Limbert tells Khamenei that the living conditions are generally good and there are no problems, but then he tells Khamenei that the only problem is that the hostage takers won’t let them leave,” Marashi says. “This was meant as a not-so-subtle joke or jab at the whole situation. Khamenei doesn’t seem to get the joke.”

Then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran John Limbert visited Geneva February 9-11, 2010 in advance of the Human Rights Council's first Universal Periodic Review of Iran.
Credit Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva

Limbert stayed with the Foreign Service, eventually serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in the early 2000s, and came out of retirement from the State Department in 2009 to become the first-ever Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran. He says his experience as a hostage reinforced the idea that diplomacy is important, since he spent 14 months as a first-hand witness to the opposite.

“When communication breaks down, the alternative, frankly, is anarchy, violence, and lawlessness,” Limbert says. “It’s ironic, really, that during all this, the Iranians kept saying they didn’t care about international law – those structures are there to protect the smaller countries. It’s countries like Iran that in fact need that kind of protection.”

That optimism remains even after he stepped down in 2010 over frustration that more progress wasn’t made in repairing U.S.-Iranian relations. But he says the Iranians have undertaken a new direction after the 2013 election. President Hassan Rouhani now speaks of moderation and Khamenei talks about flexibility. Limbert says this is new in the political vocabulary.

“What you have now is a coincidence – call it a fortunate coincidence – of two leaders who seem to have some common features in their vision of the relationship,” Limbert says. “Maybe the door isn’t open. Maybe the window isn’t open. But maybe there’s a small crack in this wall of mistrust and suspicion and hostility that’s divided us for over three decades.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On his experience as a hostage

When the original attack came, our priority was keeping everybody safe with the assumption that within a matter of hours, or at most one day, those in authority would step in and exercise adult supervision over the situation, and resolve it. What very few people foresaw was that this thing would change from a 1970s-style student sit-in, to a full-blown international crisis. We had no contact with the outside world. We had no news. We had no access to radio. We had no access to newspapers. Our mail was very limited, and strictly controlled. We had very limited communication with each other. We would try to spread news, but for whatever reason, the policy of those holding us, the actions of those holding us were to keep us isolated from news of the outside world. They perhaps felt we would be more malleable, or manipulatable because of that.

On two implications that the hostages could be released

One was the visit, approximately a month before we were released, by an Algerian mediation team. There was an official from the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then the Algerian ambassador in Tehran, who came around and visited us, and told us, in general terms, what was going on. Not specifics, not who was saying what, or who was bargaining what, but this was certainly a very positive sign. It was the most positive sign that we had seen in a long time, because these were serious people, and the fact that they had visited us - the students who were holding us either allowed them to do it, or were forced to allow them to do it, and had no choice. So the sign was "something serious is in the works, and there looks like a change going on." Put that together with the change of administration in the United States, and there was reason for hope.

On how the hostage crisis was “self-destructive” for Iranians

Just one example is the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam looked at Iran. He saw this country that was isolated, that was in turmoil, that was tearing itself apart, and correctly, he estimated that when he attacked, no one, or almost no one in the international community would take Iran's side. These were not decisions taken on the basis of a measured consideration of national interest.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ambassador John Limbert, welcome to World Views.

AMB. JOHN LIMBERT: Well thank you, Suzette. It's nice to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Ambassador Limbert, we're about to acknowledge the 33rd anniversary of your release after 444 days of captivity in Iran following the siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. You and 52 of your colleagues spent that time being held in that embassy. Take us back to that day 33 years ago when you were released, and this incredible ordeal that you experienced. What was that like on that day?

LIMBERT: OK, we're talking about January 20, 1981. It was the last day of President Jimmy Carter's administration. It was the day on which Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. We had been held since November 4, 1979, so 14 months. When the original attack came, our priority was keeping everybody safe with the assumption that within a matter of hours, or at most one day, those in authority would step in and exercise adult supervision over the situation, and resolve it. Now, we might end up staying in Iran as diplomats. We might have left Iran under those circumstances, but what very few people foresaw was that this thing would change from a 1970s-style student sit-in, to a full-blown international crisis that would end up costing Jimmy Carter his presidency, and casting a shadow over U.S.-Iran relations for the next 34 years.

GRILLOT: So this experience that you had...I can't imagine. How did you and your colleagues endure? What did you do? Did you know what was going on in the outside world? Did you know about the rescue attempt?

LIMBERT: We had no contact with the outside world. We had no news. We had no access to radio. We had no access to newspapers. Our mail was very limited, and strictly controlled. We had very limited communication with each other. We would try to spread news, but for whatever reason, the policy of those holding us, the actions of those holding us were to keep us isolated from news of the outside world. They perhaps felt we would be more malleable, or manipulatable because of that.

GRILLOT: OK, so the day comes, you're ready to go. Did this come as a huge shock? The day that you were released? Had you lost hope about being released?

LIMBERT: No, we never lost hope. There had been some false signs before that things might change. So you didn't deliberately get your hopes up too high, because you knew that something could go wrong. There could be a problem. But there were two major indications that something major was going on. One was the visit, approximately a month before we were released, by an Algerian mediation team. There was an official from the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then the Algerian ambassador in Tehran, who came around and visited us, and told us, in general terms, what was going on. Not specifics, not who was saying what, or who was bargaining what, but this was certainly a very positive sign. It was the most positive sign that we had seen in a long time, because these were serious people, and the fact that they had visited us - the students who were holding us either allowed them to do it, or were forced to allow them to do it, and had no choice. So the sign was "something serious is in the works, and there looks like a change going on." Put that together with the change of administration in the United States, and there was reason for hope.

GRILLOT: So clearly since that time, and your release, you've gone on to have a significant career in the Foreign Service, and particularly throughout other parts of the region in the Middle East. How was that for you to return back to the region, and have you ever made it back to Iran?

LIMBERT: I've never been back to Iran since then. This is not my choice. I would like to go back. I would like to take our children back, because they were both born there. I would like to take our grandchildren back there because it's part of them. But so far I'm not welcome.

GRILLOT: Meaning not welcome by the Iranians? You're would not be welcome there because of the...

LIMBERT: That's right. American tourists go. American visitors go.

GRILLOT: So there's no prohibition for you to go, from our perspective? The U.S. government?

LIMBERT: No. I mean I'm a private citizen. I don't work for the State Department anymore, so there's no prohibition on it. Why this is so, I don't know. I think I remind them of a chapter in their past they would probably like to bury, and I wouldn't let them do that if I were there. I would be a walking reminder forcing them to confront something that they would prefer not to. In terms of my career, I went back working in the Foreign Service because it's what I do. It's what I know, and the experience reinforced the idea that this is important. Diplomacy is important. Talking among states is important, because during those 14 months, we had all witnessed first-hand the alternative. When communication breaks down, the alternative, frankly, is anarchy, violence, and lawlessness. Now, the international arena, the stage for international relations is already a pretty chaotic place in the best of circumstances. But when you remove every vestige of order and rule, then what are you left with? You're left with a very Hobbesian universe, in which only the strong survive, and there is nothing to protect anyone else. It's ironic, really, that during all this, the Iranians kept saying that they didn't care about international law. They didn't care about international organizations, international structures. But those structures are there to protect the smaller countries, presumably the superpowers; the large powers don't need them quite as much. It's countries like Iran that in fact need that kind of protection.

GRILLOT: So it only hurts them to not participate in this international organization, and abide by international law, is what you're suggesting?

LIMBERT: Well, the whole incident for Iran and Iranians was incredibly self-destructive. You start to catalog...just one example is the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam looked at Iran. He saw this country that was isolated, that was in turmoil, that was tearing itself apart, and correctly, he estimated that when he attacked, no one, or almost no one in the international community would take Iran's side.

GRILLOT: So a critical mistake made by Iran.

LIMBERT: Well, if they were thinking that way.

GRILLOT: So I guess a critical strategic mistake, in that respect.

LIMBERT: Right. We don't live in a rational world. I wish we did, but we pretend we do sometimes, but we don't. These were not decisions taken on the basis of a measured consideration of national interest.

GRILLOT: Well, it's interesting to hear you talk about your passion now. Obviously that experience, the passion that you have for diplomacy and open channels of communication and working together. So let's fast-forward to today. You've mentioned that after this crisis, damaged U.S-Iran relations have pretty much been non-existent since that time. But where are we headed today? As a diplomat, do you see that there's some hope for normalized relations? Now, particularly in light of a change of regime in Iran. Is the U.S. now more interested in redeveloping those ties? Where do you think we're headed today?

LIMBERT: As a diplomat, my profession demands that I always be an optimist. That I always see something better out there. If you're not an optimist, you're probably in the wrong field. You shouldn't be in this field. You should be in something else. The fact of the matter is, for 34 years, the U.S. and Iran barely talked to each other, and if we did talk to each other, it was usually yelling at each other, or calling each other names. Insulting each other. Threatening each other. Sometimes worse than that. Where are we headed? Well clearly something is changing. After the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran, the Iranians have undertaken a new direction. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 set the United States in a new direction. President Obama used language and styles toward Iran that had not been heard in a long time. For five years, however, there was not a positive response to that. So what you have now is a coincidence - call it a fortunate coincidence - of two leaders who seem to have some common features in their vision of the relationship. Until now, you haven't had that. If one side seemed interested in changing the relationship, making some progress, the other side pulled back. It could've been bad luck, bad coincidence, bad timing, whatever it was. Under President Clinton, when the U.S. reached out in 1997-1998, the Iranians pulled back. In 2003, the Iranians came forward with a plan. The Bush Administration wasn't interested. In 2009, President Obama came forward with his ideas, and the Iranians were not very responsive. Now, you have a situation where it's possible that the two sides could actually talk, could come together at the same time. Because after all, President Obama, five years ago, spoke about engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect. Something that the Iranians had always said they wanted. Five years later, President Rouhani is now talking about moderation. Even the Supreme Leader is talking about flexibility. This is new in the political vocabulary. So you have a coincidence of leadership with, certainly not the same vision, but at least similarities in their visions of how this relationship might go.

GRILLOT: So potentially now opening the door for a better future lying ahead, I suppose. That's the optimistic view.

LIMBERT: Well, what we have is maybe the door isn't open. Maybe the window isn't open, but maybe there's a small crack in this wall of mistrust and suspicion and hostility that's divided us for over three decades.

GRILLOT: Well it certainly will be interesting to see how this develops, and how this coming together, and the timing of these two leaders at one time might play out. Well thank you, Ambassador Limbert, for sharing your story with us today. It's very inspiring, and I appreciate you being here to share this with us.

LIMBERT: Well thank you, Suzette. My pleasure.

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