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MARCH 2015


A veteran FSO and authority on Iran explains what it will take for Washington to

“get it right” when U.S. diplomats finally return to Tehran.


JohnW. Limbert served as the first-ever deputy assistant secretary of

State for Iran from 2009 to 2010. He is a veteran U.S. diplomat and a

former official at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where he was held captive

during the Iran hostage crisis. He was ambassador to Mauritania from

2000 to 2003 and AFSA president from 2003 to 2005, among many other

assignments. He is the author of

Iran: At War with History


Press, 1987),

Shiraz in the Age of Hafez

(University of Washington Press,

2004) and

Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History


Institute of Peace Press, 2009).

NPR: Is there any scenario under which you can envision, in your

final two years, opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran?

I never say never; but I think these things have to go in steps.

President Barack Obama, in an interview with

National Public Radio, December 2014.


n 2010, I asked the State Department’s Iran watchers,

then gathered in Washington, D.C., which of them

would volunteer to serve at a reopened diplomatic post

in Tehran if the opportunity arose. All said they would.

None of them had ever set foot in Iran; but they had

looked into a new world through windows of language,

film, policy argument and, most important, Iranians

they had met in Dubai, Istanbul, Baku, Berlin and

elsewhere. They had obviously caught the antibiotic-

resistant “Iran bug,” and a fascination with the intricacies and

contradictions of that country and its civilization had taken root in

their systems.

Sooner or later, our Foreign Service colleagues will return

to Tehran. But while essential for effective service in Iran, their

brains and enthusiasm cannot by themselves carry a renewed

diplomatic tie. They will need support from the State Department

in the form of a serious “Iranist” career track and an ability to deal

with the potent ghosts that haunt both sides in the American-

Iranian relationship.

The Road Back to Tehran:

Bugs, Ghosts and




The (Incurable) Iran Bug

The Iran watchers have encountered conflicting realities that

both puzzle and attract them. Many of the Iranians they have met

are highly educated and creative people, who produce brilliant

films, paintings and poetry, and who sometimes turn their creativ-

ity to concocting the most bizarre conspiracy theories. The result

was sometimes shock, but more often fascination. The watch-

ers are like people who create a Jerusalem, Mecca or Karbala in

their imaginations long before there is any chance of making a

pilgrimage. They have never been to Iran, but the idea of Iran has

captured them.

I recognized this virus, because I had caught it 45 years earlier,

during Peace Corps training in Iran in the summer of 1964. At first,

the beauties, subtleties and mysteries of the Persian language—

despite endless drills—were a revelation. I realized that we were in

for something unexpected one evening when playing Monopoly