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Former Embassy Hostage Says He Was 'Wrong' About Iran's Revolution

Limbert was one of 100 Americans held hostage after Iranian students took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Limbert was one of 100 Americans held hostage after Iranian students took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

American John Limbert has had what could be called a lifelong love affair with Iran.

He first traveled to the country in 1962, when his parents were there working for USAID. After studying Persian, he came back in 1964 as one of the first Peace Corp volunteers to work in that country. In the 1970s, he was back again, working as a researcher and university instructor, and continuing his studies.

When the U.S. Embassy was captured by Iranian students in 1979, Limbert was newly posted to the embassy, just beginning his career in Tehran as a Foreign Service officer. Along with 50 other Americans, he was held captive for more than a year.

Today, fluent in Persian and married to an Iranian woman, Limbert is a former U.S. ambassador and distinguished professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked him for his reflections on the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

RFE/RL: For those who don't know, can you describe what were you doing in Tehran in 1979?

John Limbert:
In 1979 I was assigned to the embassy in Tehran, I was a political officer there. I came there actually in August -- August 19, 1979 -- so you could say my timing was absolutely terrible. But I had lived in Iran before that, as a high-school teacher, as a researcher, and as a university instructor. But as a diplomat I had only gone there in 1979, so I arrived there about 12 weeks before the embassy was captured.

RFE/RL: What did you do after you were released?

Well, we left Iran on the same day that President [Ronald] Reagan was inaugurated, January 20, '81. When we reached the U.S., I spent a couple of months sort of traveling around, being [with] family, and my next assignment actually was at the Naval Academy. I was assigned as a Foreign Service officer to teach in the political-science department.

RFE/RL: How do you think your time as a hostage in Iran changed you?

Well, I really don't know, specifically. I mean, I'm the worst person to ask this, you'd have to ask maybe my family members or colleagues.

But I think a couple things came out of it. One, I think I got a new appreciation for our own profession -- that is, the profession of diplomacy. And the idea of how do you solve problems between nations and between people? Because at the end of the day, that's what diplomacy is all about, and the importance of that process. Because if that process breaks down, you essentially have anarchy, of the kind that we encountered in Tehran in '79.

Iran's Surprising Direction

RFE/RL: This is the 30th anniversary of the revolution in Iran. Back in 1979, did you think it would last this long?

No, like just about everybody else I guess, I was wrong about the revolution. I admit that I called it wrong really from the beginning and in the direction that it went. The direction that it went -- this rather harsh and brutal and intolerant direction that it went -- certainly surprised me. I didn't expect it.

Nor did I expect that we and the Iranians would remain estranged for as long as we have. I mean, when we left in '81 I thought, "Okay this is a phase that a revolution goes through but maybe five, 10 years out, things will change, things will settle down and we and the Iranians will be ready perhaps for a more normal relationship." Obviously that hasn't happened.

RFE/RL: Do you think that U.S. President Barack Obama's willingness to extend a hand -- to hold direct talks with Iran, for example -- will soften Iran's posture toward the West?

I hope so. I'm not sure because the load of suspicion, the burden of hostility, the ghosts of the past -- they're all still there, and they're not going to go away with one speech or with one gesture or in one day.

But I would hope that [Obama] and others would continue the effort and show some patience, show some persistence, and keep at it -- because it's worth doing. But it's going to be difficult, it's going to be frustrating, and it's going to meet with the occasional setback.

RFE/RL: Finally, Iran has a huge population of young people. Do you think change, if it comes, will come from within the country -- from the young people, perhaps -- or from outside?

I certainly don't see it coming from the outside. Where it comes from the inside, I would never predict. I didn't predict where the change would come from at the revolution.

But one way or another, the country's going to have to deal with these young people and what they want, and also this large number of educated women in this society. I mean now, for example, figures I have seen -- 65 percent of the young people in higher education in Iran are women. Are they going to be satisfied with the way things are or are they going to demand change?

What form this takes, what kind of change, what they're willing to do -- that I wouldn't predict. But one way or another, the authorities are going to have to come to terms with these demands.

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