Ex-U.S. Hostage Named Senior Iran Policy Official

When former ambassador John Limbert, a former hostage in Iran, retired a few years ago, he lamented the fact that Iran experts and Farsi speakers don't have much of a career path at the State Department. But now, the Obama administration has created a new job to focus on Iran policy — a deputy assistant secretary of state — and Limbert was just plucked out of retirement to take on the assignment.

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The Obama administration says it should know by the end of this year whether or not its outreach to Iran is working. But in a sign that the U.S. wants to give diplomacy some breathing space, the State Department has created a new position to focus on Iran policy. It brought out of retirement one of the few diplomats who speaks Farsi. His name is John Limbert.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, he's been an advocate for engagement with Iran, despite his own troubled past as a hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It's been 30 years since the hostage drama which the U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns described as one of the most painful and shameful episodes in the turbulent U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Undersecretary WILLIAM BURNS (State Department): This anniversary is a vivid reminder that the hostility between our governments has cost both our nations dearly. To be sure, Iranians have their own list of grievances. But the question before us is whether we can move beyond this troubled past and seek to ensure that the antagonisms and suspicions of our past do not define the future for America and Iran.

KELEMEN: He was speaking at the Middle East Institute here in Washington, just days after a former hostage, John Limbert, was brought back to advise the State Department on how to look forward.

Limbert was a career diplomat who says U.S. officials have to engage Iran.

Mr. JOHN LIMBERT (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, State Department): I mean, after all, if we never could agree with the Iranians on anything, I mean, I and my colleagues, we'd 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.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Despite the fact that John was a hostage himself, he takes a remarkably dispassionate view toward Iran. And he's always said that the hostage crisis was far more damaging to the nation of Iran and Iran's national interest than to the hostages personally.

KELEMEN: Sadjadpour 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.

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Mr. SADJADPOUR: It tells you a lot about his temperament. That despite the fact that, you know, he's under siege he's a hostage - he sits in perfectly composed Persian; has a conversation with his hostage taker. And using kind of the subtlety of the Persian language, he kind of shamed Khamenei and put him in his place to say that, you know, Persian hospitality has really gone overboard now. You invite us to a dinner party but you 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-American 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 describe the U.S. as not the enemy, but the rival.

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

KELEMEN: Ambassador Limbert said he thinks that explains the image in Iran of America as the Great Satan.

Mr. LIMBERT: Satan is not this ugly, frightening being of our horror movies. But Satan is the tempter and tempts you away from, in this case, the path of militancy and revolution.

KELEMEN: Limbert told NPR that he thinks the more conciliatory tone from the Obama administration has kept the Iranian regime off balance. And he said that the U.S. should keep that up.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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