By Andy Rieger
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — A longtime, career United States Foreign Service officer, who was among the 52 Americans taken hostage in Iran 34 years ago this week, sees a slow warming in the 34-year freeze between the two countries.
“Something is changing. I’m not sure what. I’m not sure where it is going, but something is changing,” former diplomat John Limbert told an attentive audience Tuesday evening inside the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the OU campus.
“The tone is changing. Tone matters because all we have been doing for the past 34 years is trading insults and threats,” Limbert said.
Limbert’s talk was part of an OU Iranian Studies program and was sponsored by the Farzaneh family of Norman. He lectured Monday at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Now a professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Limbert was held captive from Nov. 4, 1979, until his release on Jan. 20, 1981. He has served diplomatic posts in Algeria, Djibouti, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He has bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard.
In 2009, Limbert took a leave from his teaching duties and returned to the State Department when he sensed an interest on the part of President Obama in beginning a dialogue with the Iranian people and their government.
Prior to that, the relationship between the two countries was on a road to nowhere littered with wrecked cars, he said. Presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have preferred not to deal with Iran. When they engaged them, it involved demonizing and dehumanizing each other, he said.
“I think that’s a natural human condition when people don’t talk to each other,” he said. “We can talk to North Korea and we can talk to Cuba easier than we can talk to Iran.”
Limbert said the September meeting between the top diplomats of Iran and the U.S. was a first in more than 34 years. A recent telephone call between the two leaders may have been a first.
He said there is no map to changing the relationship, and he’s not certain either side has an end goal in mind.
“It’s (the relationship) like a new growing plant that has just come out of the ground and needs special care,” he said. “It’s a very delicate flower that needs very special handling.”
That relationship has not always been so fragile, he said, noting years of business, educational and financial cooperation between the two countries. Limbert briefly traced events that led to students occupying the U.S. embassy in Tehran in a fashion similar to a sit-in at an American university campus in the 1970s.
“That’s what we thought we were dealing with from the Fourth of November through the Fifth of November,” he said. “Then I heard on the radio that the government had resigned and I thought, ‘Oh, heck,’ but that’s not really what I said, but this is a family audience.”
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