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Hostage In Iran: A Conversation With John Limbert

Benjamin Gottlieb, Arezou Rezvani |
October 5, 2011 | 11:30 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor & Staff Reporter

This week on Eye on the Middle East:

China and Russia's vote against the European-drafted UN security resolution Tunisia's upcoming free elections.

This week's featured guest is former U.S. Ambassador to Iran, John Limbert.

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Featured Song: "Cler Achel" by Tinariwen
Program run time: 20:40


Arezou Rezvani: Ambassador Limbert, thanks so much for joining us on the program.

Ambassador John Limbert: Oh, thank you Arezou, my pleasure.

Benjamin Gottlieb: We're going to revisit what happened a few weeks ago with the U.S. hikers in Iran. Did the timing of the release come as a surprise to you?

AJL: No, but I can't say that I predicted exactly when it would be. Of course, it was probably not a coincidence that it came at the same time that President Ahmadinejad was to travel to New York for the UN General Assembly.

AR: Now just a few weeks before Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released Iranian authorities sentenced the two to 8 years in prison. Does this point to an internal disagreement within Iranian leadership that we might expect to play out more visibly in the future?

AJL: Well, the subject of the internal divisions, that's on what side. In terms of the sentence, it seems to me that this was clearly a resolution. they had had these young people in custody for over 2 years and they hadn't charged them with anything, they hadn't tried them with anything. They didn't have anything against them. But they clearly weren't going to say, "Oh, sorry. We made a mistake" and just let them go without anything. So they had to go through the formality of something but finding them guilty of espionage and then sentencing them to 5 years clearly doesn't really compute. If they were guilty of espionage they would have at least in my understanding of the Islamic Republic you would get much more than 5 years.

BG: Ambassador, you spent 14 months as a hostage in Iran  Ever since you've devoted much of your career to helping improve U.S.-Iranian relations. Have the Americans exhausted all options for improving all options or do you think there are initiatives that can still be considered.

AJL: It's been 30 years now…31 years actually that we've had diplomatic relations with iIran we haven't found ourselves able to talk to each other , not that we should be necessarily talking to each other as friends but to even talk to each other as two states normally do. This is going to take time, this is going to be hard. People on both sides say that they would like to see a difficult relationship, a better relationship, but getting there has proved extremely difficult.

BG: Recently in the news there was this idea that the Obama administration put forward about the idea of a red line or a red phone very similar to what we had in the Soviet era with Moscow. But the Iranian government wasn't very excited about this idea. Do you think that's something that it could be helpful?

AJL: Yeah, some sort of a hotline between the two countries, why not in terms of avoiding a misunderstanding, avoiding a miscalculation. It's a subset of communication. Problem is, Ben, is that each side has fallen into a situation where anything the other side proposes is assumed to be some kind of a trick, some kind of a ruse. So it gets very difficult to say yes to anything, even something as innocuous and as obviously useful to both sides as a hotline.

BG: Taking it forward. The U.S. doesn't have, as you know, a very good relationship with North Korea, I mean, very little at all. But they do engage North Korea in the six-party talks when they involve other nations to sit down with them. Obviously it's mostly about talking about nuclear disarmament. But do you think the idea of a larger body, maybe a body of Middle East and European countries getting together with Iran, maybe even, for example, getting the Omanis involved who were instrumental in getting the release of the hikers with providing the funds for the bail.

AJL: Well, in fact I think that President Clinton has gone to North Korea, Governor Richardson has spoken to the North Koreans so I think our level of communication with North Korea, I don't compare the two states, but the level of communication there has been much higher. We have much better communications that we do with the government of Iran.

AR: Why is that? Why is there this contradiction?

AJL: I don't know, you have to ask the Iranians there. they seem to be afraid of something, I'm not sure what it is. But maybe it's just the habits of thirty years are very hard to break.

AR: Now, some have argued against giving Ahmadinejad a forum to speak, particularly on university campuses. Where do you sit on that issue?

AJL: I don't have any particular problem with that I means he's been speaking for 5,6, 7  years. it never hurts to listen to what the other side has to say. You don't have to agree with it, you don't have to like it. But one of the main tools of interaction between countries, call it diplomacy or communication…isn't one of the main tools listening to what the other side has to say?

BG: Would you also argue that the involvement of the U.S. in Iran especially when they reinstated the Shah back 50 years ago, 60 years ago, does that play a role in the collective Iranian memory?

AJL: Of course. I teach in my current job history and political science and we talk about the difference between…there is history and there is memory. and those events of 1953 those really deplorable events of 1953 plus the events of 1979 and 1980 in which I was held and my colleagues were held have both had a powerful effect on the psychology of both sides and how each side looks at the other.

AR: Now you were held captive quite a long time ago. Can you describe the conditions of being held captive in Iran? How were you treated?

AJL: I mean not well, not well. Obviously I survived it, but it the conditions were not good. Of the 14 months that I was held I personally was held 9 months in solitary some people were longer, some people less, it varied. But what I suppose is the most striking thing  to me of those events, really two. One was that no one in authority in Iran took any responsibility for the actions of their country. I mean it's one thing when a group of young students and I apologize, I'm not cast aspersions on young people here, but it's one thing when a group of young students do an act like this driven by emotion or something else but it's quite diff when people who are supposedly responsible and in positions of authority do not fulfill their obligations, do not do what their suppose to. Second part of it, which is so striking, and Arezou, I'm sure that you know this that in the Iranian tradition probably the worst single thing you can do, the most outrageous thing you can do is to mistreat a guest for whose security and well-being you are responsible. Iranians are like the rest of us, they may do good things they may do bad things. But one thing I had never encountered in my experience before this is an Iranian mistreating a guest for whom he or she was responsible.

AR: I recently viewed some fascinating footage from 1980, you were speaking in fluent Persian to Khamenei. Can you talk to us about the significance of cultural diplomacy and how understanding some of the smaller things across cultural divides is really important in improving diplomatic relations between two countries?

AJL: It's interesting that you pointed to that. That happened I think in April of 1980 and I had pretty much suppressed it. It was an incident and I hadn't thought much about it until back, I think it was November of 2009 that that resurfaced and it resurfaced of all places on Khamenei's website and there we thirty years younger in that exchange. The intention, and I'm sure you saw this, not to berate him or sermonize him or tell him what a terrible thing had been done but to make a very simple point that what had been done was in contradiction to every value of his own culture and his own civilization and from everything I could see, I think he understood that perfectly well.

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