Former Ambassador Bruce Laigen and former Ambassador John Limbert were among the dozens of U.S. citizens held captive in Tehran from 1979-81, the former serving as Chief of Mission, the latter as a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy. The two spoke at a press conference Monday, capitalizing on the film Argo‘s Best Picture win Sunday night at the Academy Awards to highlight the need for U.S. diplomacy with Iran moving forward.
“Rather than learning from the lessons of history, the U.S. and Iran continue to be held hostage to it,” Laingen said in his prepared remarks, laying out a theme that would be continued throughout the press conference. Both men also made clear that the mutual interests of the U.S. and Iran are too many to not have continuing dialogue between the states. “The Islamic Republic [of Iran], like it or not, is what it is and we do have things to talk about, even if we do not necessarily talk to them as friends,” Limbert said.
The need for diplomacy with Iran stretches beyond issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, according to the former diplomats, with Laigen in particular noting difficulties that come in negotiating absent steady communication:
LAIGEN: It’s difficult because you’re not there, that’s one of the problems. We — Americans are not in Tehran. What the hell, we should be. We should be there representing the United States of America. We should a relationship of have some kind. We have zilch. And that’s not a very good basis on which to have any kind of diplomatic exchange.
The latest round in discussions between Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, Russian Federation, China, France, and Germany — over Tehran’s nuclear program are set to begin in Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Asked about their expectations for the meetings, the two were muted in their predictions. Laigen confidently asserted that the talks would end with a follow-up meeting next month. “As long as the two sides simply refuse to see the world how the other side sees the world, I don’t know where you’re going to make progress,” Limbert said.
Limbert, in response to a question, took on the concept of the “general feeling” that Iran is aiming to build a nuclear weapon, noting the lack of evidence that tends to come from those making the claim. Limbert characterized the argument from those making the claim by saying, “We know [that Iran is working towards a nuclear weapon] because they are bad people and they do bad things. So when they say their program is entirely peaceful, it must be exactly the opposite.” U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials both currently believe that Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon.
Limbert also downplayed the threat of Iranian influence in the Middle East, saying he “[doesn't] lose a lot of sleep” over the idea. Noting that Iran is “not in a good place politically and diplomatically,” Limbert pointed out that Iran’s lack of allies in the region makes it difficult for anything resembling a spread of the Iranian revolution to occur. “The threat of Iranian hegemony has been overblown by parties who seek to benefit by continuing the chest-beating,” he concluded.
The Obama administration, by contrast, has said that Iran with a nuclear weapon is a threat to the region and has pledged to use all available tools, including military action, to prevent the Islamic Republican from building one.