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Former U.S. Hostage Appointed Senior Iran Official At State Department

John Limbert, a veteran U.S. diplomat and former hostage held in Iran for 444 days, has reportedly been appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Limbert will be involved in negotiations with Iran, along with under secretary of state for political affairs, William Burns. In a February interview with RFE/RL, Limbert predicted that U.S. engagement efforts with Iran will be “difficult,” “frustrating,” and will meet the “occasional setback.”

His appointment comes as Iran, embroiled in postelection crisis, has charged three Americans detained in the Islamic Republic with espionage.

Steve Fairbanks, a former State Department Iran analyst and former director of RFE/RL’s Persian Service, says Limbert‘s appointment elevates Iranian affairs to a much more important position at the State Department.

“For the last 20 some years, there’s not been a position for a deputy assistant secretary who is simply in charge of Iranian affairs,” Fairbanks says.

Limbert, a career diplomat, is a fluent Persian speaker who has published several books on Iran including a recent one on how to engage the Islamic Republic, titled “Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.”

Fairbanks, who’s known Limbert since 1964 when both men traveled to Iran as Peace Corps volunteers, believes that the State Department could not have made a better choice.

“He’s both a scholar on Iran and an experienced diplomat, while staying in Iran a lot longer than he planned to of course 30 years ago, but who has kept a very fair opinion toward Iran,“ said Fairbanks in an interview with RFE/RL.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has described Limbert as a “wonderful choice” and someone who has the best interests of the United States and Iran in mind.

Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University, told RFE/RL that Limbert is an “inspired choice.” “It’s hard to imagine anybody better qualified to have that position,” he says.

Sick adds that Limbert’s biggest challenge will the same challenge the U.S. government is facing.

“How do you carry out negotiations with a country that is in the midst of domestic turmoil? The leadership of Iran is right now divided and the opposition is not going away after the elections and the repression,” Sick says.

Sick says that finding a way to carry out negotiations with Iran is the ultimate challenge. He adds that Limbert is as well-equipped to deal with that as anybody possibly could be.

So far there's been no official Iranian reaction to Limbert’s appointment. The ultra-hard-line daily “Kayhan” reported Limbert’s appointment and described him as having close ties with the Soros foundation and as a supporter of “the theory of soft subversion in Iran.”

Some critics have said that Limbert is not a “neutral arbiter” because of his association with the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Limbert reportedly served on the advisory board of the group up until his appointment.

Fairbanks rejected that criticism and says Limbert will be a “very clear-minded person” in his new position.

The day before getting sworn in, Limbert reportedly spoke at a conference hosted by NIAC on Capitol Hill. NIAC reports that Limbert stressed the importance of patience and persistence in the ongoing negotiations, and argued that productive discussions on the fate of Iran's nuclear program could also allow the United States to press Tehran on its human rights record.

Limbert, a Harvard University graduate and distinguished professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy, told RFE/RL in February that his time as a hostage in Iran gave him a new appreciation for the profession of diplomacy.

Here's a video of Iran’s then Deputy Defense Minister Ali Khamenei talking with Limbert while he was being held hostage in Tehran for 14 months, often in solitary confinement. The video was recently posted on Khamenei's website.

And here is a link to a commentary Limbert wrote for RFE/RL on the 30th anniversary of the 1979 revolution.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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