At the Middle East Institute yesterday, John Limbert, who was recently appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, discussed his his new book Negotiating with Iran.
Limbert spent 33 years in the Foreign Service, serving in Algeria, Djibouti, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. From 2000-2003 he served as ambassador to Mauritania, and retired in 2006 with the rank of Minister-Counselor. In 1979, he was among those taken hostage by radical Iranian students at the American embassy in Tehran. As Politico reported, Limbert “is the recipient of the Department’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Award, as well as an Award for Valor for his more than a year as a hostage in Iran, months of it spent in solitary confinement.”
Though Limbert made clear that he was speaking yesterday as an author and not in his capacity as a State Department official, his comments do provide insight into the thinking of a key U.S. official dealing with Iran.
The important question of his book, Limbert said, “is not ‘should we or shouldn’t we’” negotiate with Iran. “The important question is, when we finally end our thirty year estrangement, how do we do it?” It is important to acknowledge, Limbert said, that “hostility and suspicion still run very deep, and they run deep on both sides.” The Iranian view is typified, Limbert said, “in a famous rhetorical question from Ayatollah Khomeini. When asked about negotiations with the United States, he [Khomeini] replied: ‘What for? What does the wolf have to negotiate with the sheep?’”
On the American side, Limbert said, “you find something similar.” There is an idea “that one could never have successful negotiations with leaders who do and say what Iran’s leaders do and say… Because they are too fanatical, too xenophobic, too suspicious, and too untrustworthy to deal with.” This view is alive and well in Washington, Limbert said, “and I’ve encountered it as recently as last week.” Limbert suggested that this view was simply a reverse of Khomeini’s view, asking instead “what do the rational have to negotiate with the crazies?”
Knocking down some of the caricatures of Iran that tend to dominate U.S. media coverage, Limbert said “There’s much more to Iran — and much more to negotiating with Iran — than the absurdity of presidential statements coming out of Tehran and the nastiness of the current system.” Trained as an historian and fluent in Farsi, Limbert noted his great interest in Iran in the 14th century, a time in which he said “you had creative, vibrant artistic people living under rulers who, to put it bluntly, were thugs, fanatics, and bigots.” It was not incorrect, Limbert said, to notice “a similarity between conditions then and conditions now.”
Limbert was asked at what point the administration might say “enough is enough” and walk away from engagement. “I think you’re going to need a lot of patience,” he said. But “if it’s worth it — and I think from what I read and what I hear, this administration has decided that it is worth it, and knows that it will take a lot of patience. Thirty years of suspicion, thirty years of trading insults, thirty years of name-calling, and sometimes exchanges going beyond just rhetoric, that’s tough to overcome.”
Asked whether Iran’s current domestic politics would impact negotiations, Limbert replied “obviously it will,” and would likely make striking a deal more difficult. But, Limbert said, “if you wait for a good time” to try and change the relationship, “it will never come. It’s always going to be a bad time.”
Limbert said it was clear that “The system that’s been in place, where you have a ruling men’s club of about twenty five senior people” was passing away. “The core elite of the Islamic Republic… are getting old and departing the scene,” but more important, Limbert said, “the consensus which had existed among this group whose cohesion allowed the Islamic Republic to survive some horrific shocks…seems to be breaking down, and something different is coming out of it.” Limbert said that “the system to seems to be reverting to an earlier model of rule by the gun, and rule by force. Some of the features you see emerging now are reminiscent of what you saw under the Pahlavis.”
Asked whether human rights should be part of the negotiation, Limbert’s answer was direct: “Of course.” The Iranians deserve a far better government than they have, Limbert said. “Should it [human rights] be a matter for negotiation? Of course. Should it be the only matter for negotiation? I don’t think so. I would hope that we’re smart enough to deal with one issue at a time. And I think we are.”