Alex Massie

Who is John Limbert?

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Well, he's the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs who is, according to Melanie Phillips, a "fifth columnist" who is "in hock to the Iranian regime". Melanie suggests that Limbert's appointment means Tehran "now has its own man running the United States’s policy towards Iran" and asks "Has there ever been a situation where the President of a country delivers his country in this fashion to its mortal enemy?"

May I quietly suggest that this is not quite the case? Until recently Limbert was Professor of International Affairs at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. Before that he enjoyed a 33 year State Department career. Before that he spent several years teaching in Iran. He speaks Farsi fluently. And thirty years ago he was working as an official in the US Embassy in Tehran when, with many others, he was taken hostage and held prisoner for 14 months. In other words, he is one of the

relatively few

tiny number of Americans who have any real experience of Iran and one of the few who can legitimately be considered an Iran expert. As such, he might seem a rather good appointment. 

But no! Because he served - until his new appointment - on the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) he must be an agent of the Iranian regime! Come to think of it, his spell as a hostage probably means he's suffering from Stockholm Syndrome! Now it's true that NIAC opposes both military action and additional sanctions against Iran and often warns that outside intervention can rebound to the regime's advantage, but it's no friend of President Ahmadinejad and was quick to denounce his "election" in June as illegitimate. This hasn't stopped some of the usual suspects - ie, The Weekly Standard - from denouncing the organisation as Tehran's guys in Washington. The evidence for this is thin, not least because it requires one to ignore all the times NIAC has sharply criticised the Iranian regime.

Iran hawks have an obvious hostility towards the regime, but that doesn't mean that disagreeing with the hawks means one must agree with, or endorse, the regime in Tehran. Opposing military action does not, "objectively" or not, put you on the side of the Mullahs just because, one presumes, they might not be in favour of being attacked either. If it did then the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg and Michael Rubin (both of whom, it should be said, have some "issues" with NIAC but also oppose attacking Iran) would have to be considered "objectively" pro-regime.

(Of course, one can spin this the other way too: if the Mullahs thought their position might be strengthened by an American or Israeli attack then one could claim, using this logic, that the hawks are "objectively" on the regime's side too...)

So, to reiterate: pretending that the only sensible way forward vis a vis Iran is to continue the failed policies that have done nothing to avert or alleviate the current problem is as sensible as suggesting that US policy towards Cuba has been such a triumpant success that it must never, ever be altered in any way whatsoever. This is a very strange way of thinking indeed.

Limbert almost certainly won't satisfy the hawks. He is, after all, a career diplomat who thinks that after thirty years of failure there must be some merit in trying new approaches. That does not mean, however, that he's some kind of patsy who's starry-eyed about the imminent transformation of the US-Iranian relationship. On the contrary, he warns that any improvement will require enormous patience and a good deal of good fortune. And even then it won't be easy. Or even, perhaps, possible. As he wrote in his book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History, published earlier this year:

In the years ahead, it is possible that Tehran and Washington both may regain an appetite for resolving problems through negotiations rather than through chest-thumping about armored fighting vehicles. If so, we should be under no illusions that progress will be swift. Talking to Iran will still be difficult and unpleasant.

Talking to Iran, hard and disagreeable as it might be, is likely to be more productive than continuing almost three decades of noisy and sometimes violent confrontation. The U.S. should have no illusions. Discussions with the Islamic Republic are unlikely in the short run to have the kind of positive outcomes the U.S. might wish for. Iran is not going to change its behavior immediately and stop all of its misdeeds in the areas of terrorism, Middle East peace, human rights, and nuclear development. Yet through serious negotiations—even with a regime it dislikes and mistrusts—the U.S. may discover areas of common interest that lurk behind walls of hostility and suspicion.



The fundamental problem, however, is that the Iranian position is much stronger than Washington's and that's something that neither smart sanctions nor smart bombs seems terribly likely to change. The former, I suppose, will eventually be tried, not least because, pace Melanie, Congress will push for them. But what happens if they don't work and succeed only in enriching  - and strengthening - those closest to the regime?

There are dangers in rushing to exhaust options, especially when those options are thin on the ground and not terribly attractive in the first place.

And finally, gloomily, Iran may very well be a problem that confirms that Shimon Peres was right when he said: If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.

That's a lesson for politicians of all parties, in all countries, of course.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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