Retired U.S. Iran Expert Takes Long View of Iran

Retired U.S. Ambassador John Limbert has his own unique view of America's current diplomatic dance with Iran. Limbert has intimate knowledge of the country, its culture and language. He was posted to Iran in 1979 and spent 14 months as a hostage there. He has not been back since, but remains enthralled by Iran.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Right now, only a few Foreign Service officers speak fluent Farsi. And one of the last State Department officials who actually served in Iran before the U.S. broke off ties, is retired.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

In his northern Virginia home adorned with Iranian art and exquisite Persian rugs, Ambassador John Limbert reflects on his long history with Iran.

Mr. JOHN LIMBERT (Former Ambassador, Iran): Iran has been part of my life for now for over 40 years.

KELEMEN: He was teaching in Iran when he met his wife. Their two children were born there. Later, he joined the Foreign Service. And when he and his family were posted in Saudi Arabia, the State Department put out a call for Iran experts to go to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Looking back, he said he was naïve about what he could do. And he had terrible timing.

Mr. LIMBERT: So I went there in August of 1979; two-and-half months later, of course, was when the embassy was taken.

KELEMEN: John Limbert spent the next 14 months as a hostage. The U.S. broke off relations with Iran and no U.S. diplomat has been back since. Limbert says there was never really a cadre of Iran experts at the State Department, even when the U.S. had a big embassy there. There wasn't much of a career path for Farsi speakers. Developing Iran experts now is a bit late in the day, he says. But he thinks it does make a difference to have Foreign Service officers who understand Farsi and the Iranian culture.

Mr. LIMBERT: I don't have any illusions that people are always going to listen, but what's the alternative? You can make your policy on the basis of understanding the people you're dealing with; understanding how they might react to a certain way; what they are about; how history influences them. Or you can do it the other way. Well, I would suggest that pursuing a foreign policy with some knowledge, with some understanding, is by far the better way. And it's going to get you better results.

KELEMEN: Asked to comment on the growing number of calls for a direct dialogue with Iran, Limbert says that might be a good idea, since years of shouting at each other hasn't worked. But here, again, it will take some expertise to know whom to trust, he says. And the U.S. has a big handicap, since there's no diplomatic presence on the ground.

Secretary Rice's idea is to beef up embassies in countries with large Iranian exile communities. The Bush administration has also sought ways to promote regime change. But Limbert says that's something that has to come from within. He says it's distressing to see how hard-line the current Iranian government is, but adds there are other realities in Iran.

He tells the story about his days in captivity when Iranian students offered to play him music. They suggested revolutionary anthems, though he chose Persian poetry set to music.

Mr. LIMBERT: These young students would always find a reason to come and visit me while I was playing these tapes, to listen to the so-called decadent music. So there's something there.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Limbert says he'd like to see Iranians live under a more open system to allow their creativity to flourish. But he says no one here knows how to really promote this. And he's worried about the quiet suggestions of U.S. military strikes to set back Iran's nuclear programs.

Mr. LIMBERT: You know, there are a lot of bad ideas in this town.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

Mr. LIMBERT: And I've had - as you know, when you're in government service and when you're in Washington, you hear and see a lot them. That's probably one of the worst around.

KELEMEN: Now retired, Limbert says he'll keep up his interest in Iran, but only from a distance. He and his family haven't been back since he was held hostage.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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