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The Road Ahead for U.S.-Iran Relations

Interviewee: John W. Limbert, Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, U.S. Naval Academy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 2, 2009

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After thirty years of frosty relations, the United States and Iran appeared to make incremental progress during nuclear negotiations in Geneva on October 1. Marking the highest-level dialogue between Washington and Tehran in decades, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns sat down with Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and Iran agreed to open a recently disclosed facility near Qom for inspection. But while the immediate post-summit read has been optimistic, John W. Limbert, who was a hostage in the U.S. embassy in 1979-81, says the road ahead is uncertain. It is possible, he says, that the way is being cleared for an eventual dialogue between the two nations, as China and the United States had in the 1960s when envoys met in Warsaw, but nonetheless urges caution in elevating expectations. "Could you establish that kind of a channel, [as in Warsaw] or agree to a further meeting at some other level? Perhaps even a higher level? I don't know, but if it's not just going to be a one-off event, you have to come out and answer the question, 'Okay, now what do we do?'"

As a mid-level diplomat you were one of the hostages confined for some 444 days between 1979 and 1981 in Tehran. Since then, you have been a strong advocate of the United States and Iran resuming a serious dialogue. Were you surprised by the fairly upbeat reports that have come out of the meetings between the Security Council plus Germany and Iran on Thursday?

Not entirely. I think that by the way the meetings were set up, it was clear that the parties were going in with serious intentions. There was a lot of punditry that said, "Don't expect anything; expect these things to fail." But in general, if you go into a negotiation expecting to fail you will, and I think people went in with some serious intentions on both sides. A lot of the results are on the level of the symbolic, but right now the symbolic is very important.

Let's talk about the results first. One is that Iran has agreed to have the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspect the recently disclosed enrichment facility near Qom. And the second, which as far as I know, came as a surprise to everybody on the outside, was that Iran is going to turn over most of its previously low-enriched uranium to the Russians and French for reprocessing to a higher concentration, and it will eventually be returned to them as fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran. And then third, the U.S. and Iranian negotiators met privately for the first substantive high-level discussions between the two sides since you were taken hostage. Your reactions to all of this?

I'll start with the last one. What it shows I think on our side is the ability to separate the person from the problem. In other words, we obviously have found and still find what happened with the [contested presidential] election [in June] and its aftermath in Tehran to be very distasteful and unpleasant, but what you can't do is let that make you lose your focus on the goal, which is to work with whoever is on the other side of the table on a whole series of problems including the nuclear issue. In this process, if you let every setback, every unpleasant statement from the other side derail the process, you'll never get anywhere, because as we've seen over the past thirty years, as soon as you start to get somewhere something comes along and screws it up. You've had the "axis of evil" speech by President George W. Bush in 2002 right after we seemed to be making progress with Iran over Afghanistan. Then you had Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and some of his more outrageous rhetoric starting in 2005 about the holocaust and Israel; then you had this fishy election. If you let any of those things derail the process then you'll never get anywhere.

If you let every setback, every unpleasant statement from the other side derail the process, you'll never get anywhere, because ... as soon as you start to get somewhere, something comes along and screws it up.

Where do you think we now stand on the nuclear issue?

The problem is, if you make the nuclear issue and all the technical parts of it the only issue you talk about with the Iranians, you're not going to get anywhere. You're going to fail. Why is that? Because the Iranians have made that issue a matter of right and respect and dignity.  This particular enrichment procedure via the Russians and French seems to fall into the category of something that the Iranians can do that will respect their rights. In other words, by doing this the Iranians argue that they have not surrendered any of their rights to have a peaceful nuclear program, and we have not surrendered any of the rights that we have to put controls on the overall enrichment procedure.

I thought it was interesting that all sides agreed on this procedure, which has the immediate impact of taking away a good chunk of the enriched uranium that a lot of experts said could have been used to make a bomb.

Well the rule I think in intelligence is you have to assess both capability and intent. And there are an awful lot of people who have jumped to conclusions about Iranian intent without a lot of evidence, based on their own stereotypes and predilections.

William Burns, the undersecretary of state, and the Saeed Jalili, the Iranian negotiator met privately for forty-five minutes in Geneva and talked about a number of issues. Do you think this could be the start of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran?

It could be. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the room. But one of the things that you hope for out of a meeting like this is if you don't reach agreement on some substantive issue is at least to have another meeting or to schedule additional meetings. Many people have pointed to the Warsaw talks back in the 1960s between U.S. and Chinese diplomats through a period of some of the most difficult relations between the two countries. So could you establish that kind of a channel, or agree to a further meeting at some other level? Perhaps even a higher level? I don't know, but if it's not just going to be a one-off event, you have to come out and answer the question. "Okay, now what do we do?"

From the comments made by the president after the meetings on Thursday, the United States is treating this very gingerly. He said it was "constructive" but wanted to make sure Iran allows this inspection of the Qom facility and proceeds along the path that has been outlined in these talks.

I thought the president chose his words very carefully. The important thing to me was that he kept a civil and professional tone in his remarks. Whatever we think of the Iranian elections, whatever we think of this statement or that statement, it's obvious he sees the importance of keeping the tone right, and not putting out the equivalent of an "axis of evil" speech.

If you make the nuclear issue and all the technical parts of it the only issue you talk about with the Iranians, you're not going to get anywhere.

The parties are supposed to meet again before the end of the month. In an optimum situation, what would you expect to happen?

I'd like to see some symbolic kinds of gestures. Now, the Iranian foreign minister was in Washington. This is the first time this has happened in some thirty years. The reason given was that he was there to look at the Iranian Interests Section attached to the Pakistan embassy. But for him to come here took a positive step by the United States because he had to get permission to travel beyond New York. I would be very interested to see if some American official would be able to go to Tehran and visit the American Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy. We're dealing at the level of symbols, but at this point symbols become substance. The president says we're not having talks just for the sake of talks, but in fact having meetings where people don't yell at each other is in itself, I think, very significant.

The last time the same group met, in fact Mr. Burns was there, was last year, last summer. And those talks, according to all reports, got absolutely nowhere. That was the famous offer that's still on the table that: "you freeze your nuclear enrichment, we'll freeze our sanctions." Now, they have the same cast of characters, and there seems to be some flexibility at work here which comes back to what we started talking about. Obviously a high level decision had to have been made in Tehran to be more flexible or at least seemingly flexible than the last time, right?

I would dispute one statement that you made, when you said that you have the same cast of characters. In Washington, you did not have the same cast. You have a very different cast of characters, and it's hard to underestimate the importance of that on Tehran. I've always had the impression that Iranian representatives came to these meetings on the assumption that the Americans were not here to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement between equals, [and that] their purpose was to overthrow the Islamic Republic. And I must say, with some of the rhetoric coming out of the previous administration, you can understand where they might get that idea.  The other thing, as I understand it, was last summer undersecretary Burns went to Geneva [and] I think his instructions were something like, "You will do your best imitation of a potted plant."

I guess he had instructions not to engage in any private dialogue.

That's right. On the other hand, if you go back to that period and read some of the commentaries, on one side people said "this is a huge breakthrough, his being there," and on the other side people were screaming "betrayal, and sellout, and appeasement."

Well that will depend I guess on what happens in the next couple of months. If the IAEA is really able to get involved in this new plant in Qom. But of course, the bottom line is whether Iran will agree to any limitations to its enrichment program, right?

Exactly.

And we don't know.

We don't know. But again, I suspect that for the Iranian side, these negotiations are about a lot more than enrichment, and centrifuges and reactors and the NPT [Non-proliferation Treaty]. What they talk about is rights and respect and how are others dealing with us.

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