GUY RAZ, host:
Just a few weeks before the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, a young American diplomat named John Limbert arrived to Tehran to take up his new posting.
Limbert was fluent in Persian and in love with his new assignment. That ended when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979. For the next 444 days, John Limbert and 51 other Americans were held hostage.
Now during that captivity, an obscure Iranian official named Ali Khamenei paid a visit to the Americans. Today, of course, he's better known as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
But back then, he worked at the Defense Ministry and John Limbert was assigned to greet him. The cameras were rolling and Limbert knew it would air on Iranian state TV, so he pulled a trick. Limbert, the captive, treated Khamenei as if he were a guest. He offered him tea and so on. And he spoke about the Persian concept of ta'aruf. It means that guests are supposed to be treated with hospitality and respect. And Limbert hoped the message would be heard loud and clear by Iranian viewers.
Here's a clip of that poetic exchange between the two men back then.
(Soundbite of archived broadcast)
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
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Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
RAZ: John Limbert would go on to hold diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa. He retired from the State Department several years ago but was brought back last November to head up the Obama administration's diplomatic outreach to Iran.
The hope was that he might be able to find an opening to start a serious dialogue. He decided to retire for good this week. Friday was his last day on the job and he dropped by to talk about why it's been so hard to achieve a breakthrough.
Mr. JOHN LIMBERT (International Affairs, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis): We, and I - by we here, I mean the administration at large, are not in a place with Iran where we wanted to be. I think everyone thought we would be in a better place with Iran, not necessarily that we would be friends, but that we would at least be talking to each other on a regular and civil basis.
RAZ: What do you think the problem is with the current state of U.S.-Iran diplomacy? I mean, is it our approach, is it their approach, or is it simply an irreconcilable series of differences?
Mr. LIMBERT: That's a great question. Actually, you know, Guy, that's the same question I asked my students at Annapolis on their final exam. I teach a course on the U.S. and Iran, and that's my final exam question.
I mean, the reality is that 30 years of glaring at each other, we've been unable to break it despite the determination of this administration to do so. You know, I'm not in the blame business of pointing fingers to say who's at fault.
But I can quote one of my good colleagues here in Washington, Karim Sadjadpour from the Carnegie Endowment, who was talking to a sitting Iranian official who said, look, if we Iranians cannot get along with a Barack Hussein Obama who speaks to us of mutual respect, who sends us greetings on Persian New Year, and I would add, and quotes Persian poetry to us, then it's clear the problem is not in Washington.
RAZ: What has happened? I mean, as you say, the administration isn't where it wanted to be, why not?
Mr. LIMBERT: I wish I had a good answer to that. Part of it is that this obviously sincere effort and is obviously persistent effort, because we have not given up - it's been disappointing, but we haven't given up on it - has -what's the word to use - rattled the cages in Tehran. And it's very difficult to know how to respond.
I mean, to an out and out enemy speaking hostility, it's easy to respond. To someone who does all the things that I mentioned, it's very difficult because the old rhetoric, the old slogans that have been going on for 30 years, no longer have any value and are discredited. I don't think they even believe them themselves anymore.
RAZ: Mm-hmm. The death to America stuff and so on.
Mr. LIMBERT: And all of the rest, the global arrogance, the great Satan, the great Satan things. It just - and plus, you have a whole new generation of Iranians. I mean...
RAZ: Well, this is the question, I mean, with that new generation, I think a lot of people are wondering, what is the problem? I mean, when you were brought in nine months ago, what did the administration say to you? Did they say, John, we really want you to do this? And what was that thing they wanted you to do?
Mr. LIMBERT: Well, what happened, of course, is they - I mean, I have not been in Iran for 30 years. We haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran. And so the cadre of people who know Iran, who know the language, who've been there within the U.S. government is very small.
I like to joke that to find someone with that experience, they had to go to Jurassic Park and find someone of the species I call Iranosaurus(ph) to go and do this, which is to bring in someone who might have that direct experience and say, look, things we say, things we'll do, how will they be seen? How will the other side see them? What might work? What kinds of measures we could take that might work? Are you going to get immediate success? Probably not, but you can measure success in small ways, something not sad.
Since we've been shouting at each other for 30 years, when we're not shouting at each other, that is a form of progress.
RAZ: So 31 years on since the Islamic Revolution, are you surprised at where the relationship is today?
Mr. LIMBERT: I am. It's a good lesson in humility and the difficulty of prediction. When I left Tehran in January of 1981 on that Air Algerie airliner that took us to freedom, I thought, okay, five years, 10 years maybe, we the Iranians in some way will be talking to each other. Not that we would be friends necessarily, not that the relationship would be back to where it was when the shah was ruling Iran, but that at least we would be able to talk to each other, that we would have some kind of presence in Tehran.
I was obviously wrong about it. For reasons that I always ask my students and are still not entirely clear to me, this estrangement has gone on much longer than I thought it would.
RAZ: That's John Limbert. His last day as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran was Friday. He'll return to the U.S. Naval Academy this fall where he teaches history and political science.
Ambassador Limbert, thanks so much.
Mr. LIMBERT: Thank you, Guy.
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