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Former Hostage Urges Negotiations with Iran

John Limbert has wrestled with the ghosts of his past. He says it’s time to move on.

Limbert has just published a book in which he urges the United States change its approach toward the government of Iran after 30 years of confrontation. His proposal carries the weight of experience and personal re-evaluation.

Thirty years ago, Limbert was beginning a new career as a Foreign Service Officer posted to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Caught up in the storming of the Embassy compound at the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution, Limbert became one of 50 Americans held hostage for more than a year.

Today, as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama weighs its diplomatic options in dealing with Iran, Limbert is advocating for a renewed dialogue. “Whenever you sit in a room with your Iranian counterpart, it’s important to remember there are other things in that room – the ghosts of history – and they will shape the view of the person you’re dealing with,” Limbert said. He spoke on VOA English Radio’s current affairs program Press Conference USA.

Fluent in Persian and married to an Iranian woman, Limbert is a former U.S. ambassador and distinguished professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Changing Perceptions

In his new book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History, Limbert stresses that Iran is a country with more than 25 centuries of continuous history and culture, which about 300 years ago found itself in a position of subservience and weakness with the rest of the world – particularly Britain and Russia.

Until recent times, however, Iran viewed the United States as a friend. Limbert says that started to change after World War II as Washington began to see Iran almost entirely through a Cold War prism. “1953 was the culmination and it was unfortunately the outcome of the American obsession with the Cold War,” he says. That was when Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who became embroiled in a deadlock with the British over the ownership of Iranian oil, was brought down in a CIA-engineered coup. “Britain had used the specter of a Communist takeover to convince the United States that Mosaddegh had to go,” Limbert explains.

The move would ultimately poison the U.S.-Iranian relationship. By backing the Shah, the United States was transformed from a friend and ally to a puppet-master. Nothing since has changed those perceptions. “There are myths and demonization – on both sides,” says Limbert. “My purpose in the book is not to apportion blame because that’s not a very promising way to begin a dialogue.”

Historical Grievances

“If all you do is carry the grievance and say, ‘My grievance is more than your grievance,’ you’re never going to be able to have a discussion,” says Limbert. He recalls one example of the problem as heard on a VOA program several years ago. “I was saying that both the hostage-taking of ’79 and the coup of ’53 still cast a long shadow over our relationship and make it difficult to talk seriously with each other.” And then a listener in Iran called in and said, “The hostage business was 30 years ago. It’s over. You Americans should get over it.”

Limbert says he conceded the point and then posed his own question to the man. “What about the coup of 1953? Are you ready to get over that?” His answer was, “Never!” So Step One, according to Limbert, is recognizing that the grievances are there. “And if you use them as a club, the chances of accomplishing anything are pretty limited.”

A Need to Refocus

Even though the Iranian leadership’s primary goal may be remaining in power, Limbert suggests that what may serve their purposes today may not serve their purposes tomorrow. He recalls a British diplomat’s famous dictum: “We don’t have eternal friends and eternal enemies. We have eternal interests.

“I think President Obama had it about right when he said about the Middle East, "We need to lay our preconceptions aside because, if we don’t, we’re going to be the prisoners of them," says Limbert. “At bottom are a search for respect and a search for justice.”

The Nuclear Issue

At the top of the U.S. diplomatic agenda with Iran is the West’s concern about Tehran’s potential for developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s government insists it is interested only in generating nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Limbert says Iranians suspect the reason that the United States and others are pushing Iran so hard on this issue is because they are Iranians. “If they were the Swiss, or the Japanese, or the Swedes doing the same thing, you would not hear the same rhetoric,” he says. By making the nuclear issue the only issue we discuss with the Iranians, Limbert says the chances of making any progress is small.

John Limbert’s new book was published this month by the U.S. Institute of Peace. He spoke with Judith Latham and Hooman Bakhtiar on VOA’s Press Conference USA on Saturday and Sunday.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.