Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rivals, Not Enemies

Per Laura Rozen at Politico, Ambassador John Limbert has been named the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran at the State Department. Thirty years ago, Limbert was taken hostage during the Tehran embassy takeover and held for fourteen months, much of it in solitary confinement. After his release, he continued to serve in the Foreign Service for 33 years and was awarded the Distinguished Service Award.

Given the next year will have serious implications for not only US-Iranian relations but the Middle East as a whole, it is obvious why State would want to bring Limbert back on board. As Rozen explains, "Limbert is one of the few U.S. diplomats to have actually served in Tehran and who speaks the language fluently."

And speak the langauge fluently he does. Not only is he a scholar of medieval Persian poetry, he employs pun and wordplay with ease. Take, for instance, this video of Limbert and Khamenei during the hostage crisis at the niacINsight blog. Limbert quips about the Iranian concept of "taarof" or hospitality, telling Khamenei: "Iranians are too hospitable to guests in their country, when we insist that we must be going, you tell us 'no, no, you must stay.'"

In another example, I recently attended a conference on Capitol Hill hosted by the National Iranian American Council in which Limbert participated. During his remarks, he made a pun in Farsi, sparking laughter amongst the Iranians in the room. The rest of us, wondering what just happened, chuckled quietly to not feel left out.

But his language skills, while impressive, are not as important as the analysis he'll bring to his office. At the NIAC conference, he emphasized three critical points. First, the U.S. must not narrowly focus on the nuclear issue, but instead must broaden the negotiations to focus on the issues Iranians care about as well. If we only demand our objectives and not listen to theirs, we will not succeed in achieving anything.

Second, he emphasized the importance of patience. During the hostage negotiations, the basic deal to release him and the other hostages was hammered out four months before the final release. But it is difficult to turn agreed principles into action. If the U.S. had imposed artificial deadlines on the Iranians, the negotiations would have failed and he may never have been freed.

Third, by seeking to engage the regime, President Obama has presented Khamenei with a real dilemma. For the past 30 years, American has been the Great Satan. But now that Obama has recast the US-Iran relationship as a rivalry and not a Manichean struggle between enemies, Khamenei is forced to rationalize his continued demonization of the U.S. Eventually, such efforts will discredit the regime.

The question is why did the State Department choose him? Is it only because he speaks the language and has experience? Or is it because of the policies he proffers? Obviously both are important, but it is unclear how well his voice will be heard over the din of the policy debate. But at the very least, I'm glad he'll be in the middle of the fray.

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