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Interview: Embassy Hostage-Turned-U.S. Envoy Compares '79 To Iran Today

A woman displays the images of Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah Khomeini outside the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
A woman displays the images of Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah Khomeini outside the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran John Limbert tells RFE/RL that there are similarities between the current postelection unrest in Iran and the events that led up to that country's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Limbert, who was among the 53 Americans held hostage for 444 days after Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 in support of the revolution, talks to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari about the current crackdown in Iran and the nuclear issue.

RFE/RL: Last week U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the Iranian state's use of violence against innocent citizens. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. stands with Iranians who are peacefully demonstrating. What do these comments mean in practice?

John Limbert: Our policy in this regard is very clear: We support the absolute rights of the Iranian people, and we will never remain silent in the face of state violence and mistreatment against them.

RFE/RL: So when the U.S. says we stand with the Iranian people, it's meant as verbal support?

Limbert: Our stance toward the regrettable events of recent days in Iran is very clear. We believe that the Iranian people, like all other nations in the world, have the right to a government that treats its citizens humanely. The people of Iran also have the inalienable right to express their views -- [they] have freedom of speech. They have the right to criticize their leaders freely without facing violence.

Looking On The Bright Side

RFE/RL: You witnessed the events of 1979 and the Iranian Revolution. How do the events in recent months in Iran -- street protests and violence -- compare to those of 30 years ago?

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary For Iran John Limbert
In my opinion there are many similarities. I think it's very hard for the government to decide how to react to the legitimate and lawful demands of the people. The more violence it uses, the more it will hurt itself in the end.

RFE/RL: Where do you see these protests going?

Limbert: I'm not a fortune-teller.

RFE/RL: I'm asking your opinion of where this is going based on your knowledge of Iran, the Iranian people, and Iranian leaders.

Limbert: In our line of work, one must always remain optimistic. We're hoping that after these problems, the people of Iran will finally have a government that they deserve, a government that treats them humanely.

RFE/RL: The Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 5 welcomed comments by Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, who said the door to negotiations remains open. Is the U.S. still willing to negotiate with a government in which it has lost trust and which is considered illegitimate by a significant number of Iranians? A government which, as you said, uses violence against its own citizens?

Limbert: It's true. I'd like to refer to the speech by the president [Obama] in Oslo, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. When he said that we condemn state violence, he didn't mean just Iran; [he meant] that we condemn state violence by any government that uses it against its citizens. However, at the same time, for reasons that are obvious to everyone, we are sometimes ready to enter negotiations with these governments about issues that are of mutual interest and with mutual respect.

Nuclear Deadline?

RFE/RL: The United States' January 1 deadline for Iran to respond to an IAEA-brokered proposal for Iran to ship its stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad for refinement into nuclear fuel for civilian use has come and gone. Will the U.S. policy toward Iran change in that respect?

Limbert: No. I'd like to refer to [the January 5] comments by U.S. Secretary of State [Clinton], who didn't use the word "deadline." You're using it. We never used that word.

RFE/RL: President Obama used it. He said there's a January 1 deadline for progress with Iran.

Limbert: Of course it's a no secret that Iran's response to the offer made by the IAEA has not quite been satisfactory. Yet we're still negotiating with other countries, with international organizations, to encourage Iranians to find an agreement that will be in the benefit of Iran and the international community.

RFE/RL: But it appears that even the U.S. is losing hope that there will be a deal, seeing as it is reportedly talking to other countries about tougher sanctions.

Limbert: We will never lose hope. Tense relations between the U.S. and Iran is an issue of the past 30 years -- it cannot be resolved in one or two [meetings] or in a month or two -- and we have a long-term policy. Our goal, as the president said, is to end the 30 years of futility and the 30 years of dark relations.

RFE/RL: But what if, over the next few months, you don't get any result and fail to receive a firm commitment from Iran over its sensitive nuclear work. Will the U.S. then change its policy?

Limbert: You're asking me a hypothetical question, and as a diplomat I can never answer such a question. The only thing I can say is that we know that the issues, the mutual problems, we have with Iran will not be easily solved in a month, two months, or three months. As you know, the U.S. president, the U.S., is determined to renew ties with Iran despite all the problems -- which we don't underestimate -- based on a new beginning.

Counseling Patience

RFE/RL: What do you say to those critics who believe that Iran is not ready for new ties with the U.S.?

Limbert: We never expected that both sides would put 30 years of hostility and mistrust behind them in the first stage. Perhaps if they're not ready today, they will be ready tomorrow, or next week. On these issues you need a lot of patience.

RFE/RL: Three U.S. hikers are [currently] detained in Iran. An Iranian-American scholar, Kian Tajbaksh, has been sentenced to a heavy prison term over the postelection unrest. And the family of a former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared during a trip to Iran, believe that he's still held there. What is the U.S. doing for these people? And how hopeful are you that they could be released in the near future?

Limbert: We are engaged in a lot of efforts, but for reasons that are obvious to you, I can't give you details.

But we are in constant contact with countries that can influence this and can help. We believe that these are considered humanitarian issues and not political ones. We were hoping that some of them would be released for Christmas and New Year, but it didn't happen.

We're hoping that the Islamic Republic will release them in a humanitarian gesture and not treat those who merely exercised their rights in this manner.

RFE/RL: You said that one has to be patient in diplomacy, and in trying to improve ties with Iran after 30 years of hostility. But how much patience does the United States have while dealing with Iran, and when will this patience run out?

Limbert: Again, I can't tell you the amount. But I know that the current situation -- the situation of the past 30 years, which I always say is an exercise in futility in which we have been exchanging insults and empty slogans -- has not had any positive results.

We've tolerated this for 30 years; we're hoping that this will end as soon as possible.

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