Author Interviews

Former Hostage's Advice For Iran Negotiations

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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week. It's not known right now if there will be any kind of contact between U.S. and Iranian officials during his visit. But President Obama has said that he would like to make some kind of direct contact. Host Scott Simon talks to John Limbert, who was held as a hostage in Tehran for 444 days. Limbert has written a new book with some reflections about how to negotiate with Iran, and why he believes it's important.


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week. It's not known right now if there will be any kind of contact between U.S. and Iranian officials during his visit. But President Obama has said he would like to make some kind of direct contact.

Joined now in our studios by John Limbert. He's written a new book with some reflections about how to negotiate with Iran, and why he believes it's important.

Mr. Limbert is a distinguished professor of International Affairs at U.S. Naval Academy, after a career in the U.S. Foreign Service where he actually taught a course at the University of Shiraz in Iran. And of course he was one of the U.S. hostages who were held in Tehran for 444 days, from 1979 to 1981.

His new book is "Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History."

Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Limbert.

Professor JOHN LIMBERT (United States Naval Academy): Thank you very much, Scott. A pleasure to be here.

SIMON: A lot of people in your position wouldn't want to talk to Iran again at all.

Prof. LIMBERT: No, that's true. Many people ask me that, they say, with what happened. I should say in the interest of full disclosure, my ties to Iran go back a very long way, about 45 years.

SIMON: Your wife...

Prof. LIMBERT: My wife is an Iranian, but I was there as a teacher. I was there as a researcher. I was there very briefly as a diplomat.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LIMBERT: And what happened in '79 and '80, as unpleasant and as frightening as it was, over the long-term was 14 months out of a 45-year connection to this really wonderful and intriguing country.

SIMON: A lot of Iranians, much less Americans, don't accept Mr. Ahmadinejad as the legitimate ruler of Iran. Does that stand in the way now?

Prof. LIMBERT: A lot of things stand in the way. That's just another one. People often make negotiation equivalent to surrender or appeasement or weakness, and it is simply not so.

SIMON: The Iranian government repeated this week, as they do most every week, that development of a nuclear weapon is just nothing that they want to talk about. Secretary of State Clinton repeated this week, well, sorry, that's something we've got to bring up.

So what is there to talk about?

Prof. LIMBERT: This is going to be hard. All I can say is this...

SIMON: I was hoping for an answer that wouldn't be just this is going to be hard. Do you see what I mean? I really would like...

Prof. LIMBERT: But all the answers are hard.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. LIMBERT: When you're dealing with the 30-year estrangement that we have, it's all hard. But what I can say is this: if you make the nuclear issue the only issue of negotiation, you're guaranteeing its failure. One reason for that is that the Iranians have turned the issue into a question of our rights, justice and respect.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. LIMBERT: So what you hear is, why is the United States or other powers so upset that we are pursuing a peaceful nuclear program, or what they call a peaceful nuclear program?

Now, the point is there are a lot of things to talk about other than the nuclear issue.

SIMON: Like?

Prof. LIMBERT: Such as Afghanistan, such as Iraq, such as security in the Persian Gulf, such as terrorism, such as world narcotics. But if we focus only one issue, which is going to be one of the most difficult - and I'm sorry for saying it's hard but it is hard - you're setting yourself up pretty much for failure from the beginning. Because you're feeding into this sense or pose, if you like, that the Iranians are going to take.

SIMON: But you realize the concern of people is that talks will be going on and there might even be some kind of agreements that'll be reached. And in the meantime, Iran develops a nuclear bomb.

Prof. LIMBERT: Indeed. It is a legitimate concern, but the question is, what are you going to do about it? And one thing you can do about it is at least get some kind of contact going where you can talk to each other. If you can't talk to each other, how can you raise the concerns that you have about this nuclear program? Or is your only method of communication through chest-thumping?

SIMON: You've got a 14-step program that you write about in this book, and I'm sure they're all worthy. But I've isolated a few that we could talk about. Step number four, you say, Talk to the right people.

Did the Reagan administration do some of that when they were talking to the regime in the 1980s?

Prof. LIMBERT: Of course it did. This was the whole issue of the arms for hostage deal or the Iran-contra. That was one of the case studies that I use in my book, where they were talking to people who were not only misrepresenting their own position, but they were misrepresenting themselves both to the Iranians and to the Americans and promising more than either side could deliver.

SIMON: Point number 10, you say expect grandstanding political theater and flamboyant gestures.

Prof. LIMBERT: Yes. That seems to be a part of the political culture. And you will particularly find some of these gestures in public, where people will say things like, Not one inch, or, We will never compromise, we will never do this.

But it gets back to the other principle of survival. I mean if the Iranians would never give in on anything and had stuck to their original positions back in 1979, I and my colleagues would still be prisoners over there, would never had gotten out.

So yes, you expect these things. You don't write them off completely, but you have to measure them and weigh them and say, all right, what lies behind this?

SIMON: Mr. Limbert, thanks so much.

Mr. LIMBERT: Well, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: John W. Limbert, his new book, "Negotiating With Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History."

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