NPR logo Key U.S. Player On Iran, An Ex-Hostage, Seeks Engagement


Key U.S. Player On Iran, An Ex-Hostage, Seeks Engagement

John Limbert at a 2005 memorial service for the eight U.S. service members who died in a failed 1980 attempt to free him and other American hostages from the U.S. embassy in Iran. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A U.S. diplomat who will be central to State Department efforts to engage Iran is John Limbert, who has been named deputy assistant secretary for Iran and who has the distinction of being one of the former American hostages held in 1979.

NPR's Michelle Kelemen reports on All Things Considered that the choice of Limbert underscores how serious the Obama Administration is about reaching out to Iran since Limbert is committed to doing so.

An excerpt from her report:

MICHELLE: Limbert was a career diplomat — who says US officials HAVE to engage Iran.

LIMBERT: I mean, after all, if we never could agree with the Iranians on anything, I and my colleagues would probably still be in Tehran 30 years later.

KELEMEN: An Iran expert with the Carnegie endowment, Karim Sadjadpour, says Limbert is a good pick to be the first ever deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran.

SADAJAPOUR: Despite the fact that John was a hostage himself, he takes a remarkably dispassionate view toward Iran. He has always said that the hostage crisis was far more damaging to the nation of Iran and Iran's national interests than to the hostages personally.

KELEMEN: Sadjapour points to a video circulating on the Internet of a much younger Limbert, as a hostage, meeting with a revolutionary figure who is now the supreme leader of Iran.

SADAJAPOUR: It tells you a lot about his temperament that despite the fact that he's under siege, he's a hostage, he sits and in perfectly composed Persian has a conversation with his hostage taker.

And using the kind of subtlety of the Persian language, he kind of shames Khamanei and put him in his place to say that Persian hospitality has gone overboard now. You've invited us to a dinner party and haven't allowed us to leave for several weeks now.

KELEMEN: Though his career took him to places like Mauritania, Djibouti and Sudan, Limbert has always kept up his interest in Iran. His wife is Iranian and their house is filled with Persian carpets and art. During a recent interview, he talked about his new book on how to negotiate with Iran. And he quoted an Iranian political scientist who described the U.S. as not the enemy but the rival.

LIMBERT: And the word he used for rival was co-wife. and his point was that the rival is much more dangerous. Because the rival competes for affections and loyalty.