The way John Limbert sees it, Barack Obama caught Iran “wrong-footed” when he took office in 2009.
The president called for negotiations. He talked about mutual respect between the two proud countries.
“He’s quoting Persian poetry to them, he’s praising their great culture,” Limbert said Thursday. “And they didn’t know how to respond. It took them about three years to do anything.”
Limbert is a veteran diplomat who worked in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when he and 51 other Americans were taken hostage during the Islamic Revolution.
For the second time in four months he’s traveled from his home in Virginia to Missoula, where he was keynote presenter Thursday night at the 15th annual International Conference on Central and Southwest Asia on the University of Montana campus.
Limbert spent most of the first year of the Obama administration as the State Department’s point man in Iran before resuming his position as the endowed chair of Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval Academy.
His wife, Parvaneh, is a native Iranian who accompanied Limbert to Montana and recalls the phone negotiations in 2010 between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Naval Academy admiral over Limbert’s pending return to academia.
U.S.-Iran relations were at a stalemate at the time and showed no signs of resolution, Limbert said. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, for better or worse, that’s changing.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to tear up the 2015 “Iran Deal” that dismantled Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for trade concessions from the United States and five other nations. Ninety-one days into his tenure he has yet to do that, though just hours before Limbert’s presentation in Missoula, Trump maintained again that Iran has not lived up to “the spirit of the agreement” during a joint press conference in Washington with the prime minister of Italy.
On Tuesday, Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, waist-deep in explosive diplomatic issues ranging from North Korea to Afghanistan to Syria, added Iran to the list. He said Iran is in compliance with the treaty, but the United States is reviewing its policy toward Tehran. The next day Tillerson accused Iran of “alarming and ongoing provocations” to destabilize Middle East countries and undermine U.S. interests in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
“I think what you’re seeing in this, at least on the surface, is a reversion to what went on for 35 years,” Limbert said in an interview with the Missoulian. “We bash them, they bash us. We call them a rogue state, we call them the world’s No. 1 sponsor of terrorism. They call us the Great Satan.
“Now we’re comfortable again. People like having what they know.”
Iran is abuzz with talk of presidential elections – the one that happened in the United States in November and one that’s taking place in Iran on May 19.
Limbert said he was hearing concern from Iranians before the U.S. election about a more hard-line stance by the United States under presumed President Hillary Clinton and her potential secretaries of state, who appeared to be “more hawkish toward Iran than John Kerry was.”
The game changed with Trump’s upset win.
“At least under Clinton things were foreseeable,” said Limbert. “They’re never predictable, but you would know what to expect. Now all bets are off.”
Iran’s is a different election system. Current president Hassan Rouhani is among hundreds in the running. So was polarizing former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad until Thursday, when state media in Iran reported he had been disqualified from the race. The decision was made by the Guardian Council, a clerical body that Limbert said forms the real core of power in Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had urged Ahmadinejad not to run.
Confounding an already complex scene are reports that Khamenei is on his deathbed, battling an advanced stage of cancer.
Limbert first visited Missoula in December for a program sponsored by the Montana World Affairs Council. Much of his talk then centered on his 444-day hostage experience in 1979-81. Things have changed considerably since Trump’s inauguration, and this week’s conference was the ideal time to invite Limbert back, said Mehrdad Kia, director of UM’s Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center.
One strong diplomatic tie between the countries during the Obama administration was that of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Both are nuclear scientists who served as deputies to Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during negotiations of the Iran Deal in 2015. They didn’t know each other, but Moniz was on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s at the same time Salehi was a graduate student.
“That was some very effective diplomacy, probably in some ways more important than the relations between Kerry and Zarif,” Limbert said. “I somehow doubt that Secretary (Rick) Perry has the same relationship with Dr. Salehi.”
He has no inside knowledge on the workings of the Trump administration, but Limbert is clearly concerned when it comes to its approach to Iran.
“What we’re going back to is a kind of Cold War, which from time to time has become more than cold,” he said. “It’s dangerous. A misunderstanding or somebody’s mistake could have real consequences. What I worry about is the apparent absence of communication, at least at the foreign ministry level.”