Hostage to Events

In an exclusive interview, the State Department's leading Iran expert discusses his resignation and why the Islamic Republic and the United States keep on talking past each other.


John Limbert knows better than anyone not to have high expectations about U.S.-Iran relations.

One of 52 Americans held hostage by Iranians for 444 days in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Limbert came back from retirement nine months ago to head the State Department’s Iran desk in hopes he could help end the bitter enmity between the U.S. and Iran.

Those hopes have been dashed as Iran rejected U.S. overtures and the Obama administration pivoted to a familiar pattern of economic sanctions.

On Friday, Limbert is stepping down from his position. In an interview Tuesday — his first since rumors of his departure were confirmed earlier this month — he said he had promised the U.S. Naval Academy, where he had been teaching history and political science, that he would return for the fall semester. But he acknowledged personal regret that U.S.- Iran relations have not made more progress.

"I have the sense right now that we — the Obama administration writ large — are not in the place we wanted to be," Limbert said. While he said the administration is determined to pursue efforts to negotiate with Iran, he fears that both countries risk regressing to the dysfunctional pattern that has kept them largely at odds for three decades.

"Here’s the problem," Limbert said. "For 30 years, careers were made both here and in Tehran by how nasty you could be to the other side and how creative you could be in being nasty to the other side. So if you’re going to change that, what happens if it doesn’t get some immediate result? It’s very easy to slip back into what you always have been doing."

Limbert says he worked hard during his tenure to tone down the language U.S. officials employed in talking about Iran during George W. Bush’s administration.

"Phrases like ‘They have to change their behavior’ — this kind of preachy sermonizing," he said, referring to a phrase often used by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, "do not create much confidence." Limbert said he sought to "make things less judgmental, more professional." As a result, "We are perhaps doing less yelling at each other. That’s a pretty small step but compared to what’s gone on over the last 30 years, maybe it’s more important."

Still, it’s hard not to view Limbert’s departure as a turning point and yet another missed opportunity in U.S.-Iran relations. A number of players with more skeptical views about the prospect of rapprochement with Tehran — such as White House aide Dennis Ross and nonproliferation experts like Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore — appear to be driving U.S. policy now, and the president himself blames the Iranian government for failing to respond to his outreach.

Limbert, a scholar of Persian history and poetry and former Peace Corps worker in Iran who is fluent in Farsi and whose wife, Parvaneh, is Iranian, wrote a book about how to negotiate with Iran for the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is also the only American official who has met Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — during the hostage crisis before Khamenei became Iran’s president and then supreme leader.

"I believe his departure is a loss for the Department of State," says Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "John is not only a skilled diplomat but a historian, versed in Iranian history. He speaks the language just like a native, he knows the literature and he understands the mentality and the way Iranians think. As far as I remember John is the most qualified person on the Iran team at State in the three decades I have lived in the United States. He would have made an ideal negotiator if ever the U.S. and Iran sit across the table to talk."

"John is an exceptional diplomat and a really fine human being," said William Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs and a leading administration player on Iran. "We were fortunate that he agreed to return temporarily to government service, and we hope to continue to draw on his insights and experience. I deeply admire his commitment to trying to build better understanding between Iranians and Americans, with no illusions about the challenges involved."

It has been the pattern in U.S.-Iran relations that whenever one side is ready for progress, the other is not and vice versa. As Limbert put it: "They always zig when we zag."

What looked like an opening for negotiations last year passed as Iran plunged into domestic turmoil following disputed presidential elections. Then, in January, the Obama administration turned its focus toward ever more punitive economic sanctions while Iran continues a nuclear program that can give it the capability to make weapons.

U.S. officials insist that sanctions are another form of engagement and meant to persuade Iran to change course, but it appears that the Iranians — Ahmadinejad said this week that "the logic that they can persuade us to negotiate through sanctions is just a failure" — view the matter differently.

"Sanctions were never supposed to become an end in themselves but unfortunately they can easily became so, because they are something we know how to do," Limbert said. "Changing relations with Iran is much harder [than imposing sanctions] — particularly if the other side is not going to be very cooperative."

Trita Parsi, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who is writing a book about the Obama’s administration’s Iran diplomacy, faults both Washington and Tehran for the current impasse. While internal Iranian politics are a major factor, he says, the Obama administration has not shown enough patience and should have responded with more enthusiasm to an Iranian-Turkish-Brazilian plan to allow Iran to send out large quantities of its low-enriched uranium — a variant of the original U.S. proposal but one that had lost much of its attraction as Iran’s uranium stockpile grew.

Limbert, who has also served in a host of difficult posts from Algeria to Sudan to post-U.S. invasion Iraq, was pessimistic when asked if he believed he would ever get to return to Iran.

"To be honest, I don’t think so … I’d love to go back. If I could, I’d go back in a heartbeat," Limbert, 67, said.

He said his advice to his successor, Philo Dibble, another State Department veteran who oversaw the Iran file during the first term of George W. Bush, is to "keep at it … whatever you can do to keep some rationality in the policy."

Noting that Iran is asking for more talks this September with the United States and its European partners, Limbert said, "If you can get people at least exchanging letters in a professional way, given what’s gone on for the last 30 years, that’s a form of progress."

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.  Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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