Ever since their 444 days spent in captivity, from November 1979 to January 1981, Bruce Laingen and John Limbert's names have been preceded by the words "Iran hostage," a grim honorific that's emblematic of the suffering and frustration that have marked U.S.-Iranian relations.
Laingen was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Tehran when revolutionaries stormed the embassy. Limbert, a Persian speaker and former Peace Corps volunteer, was an English teacher at the time who later went on to become an ambassador.
It was all a long time ago, of course. As of this month, three decades have passed since the Shah of Iran, who had been supported by the United States as the policeman of the Persian Gulf, fled his homeland and the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, establishing a revolutionary Islamic regime that continues to threaten, challenge, undermine and sometimes violently attack the United States and its allies, especially Israel. That same Iran is now well on its way to becoming a nuclear power, and last week it launched its first satellite into orbit, sending it high over the United States.
In all these years, no American has been posted in Tehran like Laingen, Limbert or their colleagues were; nor has any dealt officially and directly with the Iranian government beyond a few limited exchanges over Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet that might be about to change. The Obama administration has suggested starting a conversation. So we sought out Laingen and Limbert and other U.S. survivors from those fraught and frightening times three decades back, including Henry Precht, the Iran desk officer at the State Department in 1979, to ask them how and whether to talk to the ayatollahs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Laingen, now 87, Limbert, 65, and Precht, 76, met at a Persian restaurant in Washington, D.C. Over plates of pomegranate stew, they spoke, as they often do, about how the United States government, after years supporting the shah, got blindsided by the Iranian revolution, and what lessons might be learned. In general, they agreed the Iranians today want, and should be shown, "mutual respect." But the Great Satan is in the details.
"We have to talk to these people to understand them," says Laingen. "There has to be respect from both sides. But we need to hear something from the other side that makes us think they really want to talk to us."
"If you go into negotiations thinking that the other side is irrational, crazy and violent, you definitely won't reach any agreements," says Limbert. To American eyes, to be sure, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks quaintly eccentric when he demands, as he did in late January, that the Western powers be "polite" when dealing with his country. His truculence toward Israel is inflammatory if not insane—not least because it could goad the Israelis into mounting an attack. And his response to President Barack Obama's talk of an extended hand has hardly been encouraging. Ahmadinejad demanded that Obama first apologize for America's many alleged crimes against the Iranian people, dating back to its support of a coup in 1953.
"When Ahmadinejad brings out this laundry list of grievances, you can go with that two ways," says Limbert. "You can say that the guy's crazy and can't do anything about it. Or you can say that like many people in Iran he carries around this burden of history. And it's a history of grievances: grievances real and grievances imagined, but they are still around."
"Or you can move on," says Precht.
"You have to deal with the grievances and then move on," says Limbert.
In either case, there will not be warm handshakes any time soon, nor should there be. Talks between Washington and Tehran might begin with questions of regional security and stability, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which border Iran. There have been such successful contacts in the past. "We have to find how to make more of this," says Limbert. "But people on both sides are doing their best to undermine it."
"There are Iranians who think it's nice to be mean to us," says Precht, drinking the liquid yogurt known as doogh. "I think we should ignore all that. Keep the eye on the ball and see the negotiations as paving the way for the future."
"Maybe," says Laingen, opening a U.S. interests section in the Swiss Embassy in Tehran—as the Bush administration contemplated—would be "a good step." American diplomats would staff the office. They'd be the first U.S. diplomats on the ground there since Laingen and Limbert were freed.
"I'm against that," says Limbert. "I'm against sending colleagues right now."
"No one is going to ask you to go over there!" says Precht, laughing.
But that's not what Limbert's got on his mind. "Can you imagine what our colleagues would have been subjected to during all this Gaza business?" he asks. "[The government] had a hard time containing the mobs in Tehran who wanted to attack the British and the Egyptians!"
Still, "there are relatively cost-free things we can do, like giving visas and then asking for reciprocity," says Precht.
"But then you get a kick in the teeth: they become suspicious that we're recruiting spies," says Limbert. He's not keen on a gesture like unfreezing Iran's assets abroad either. "I'm sure they would say, 'That's very nice. What else can you do for us?' "
Yet Precht maintains that the United States must "find a way to relieve Iranians of their insecurities. We have to stop talking about regime change," says Precht. "Obama should tell his envoy to tell Iran that we accept Iran and we're not interested" in changing its leadership. Indeed, an assurance not to meddle in Iran's internal affairs was part of the agreement that won the freedom of the hostages, at last, in January 1981.
As this suggests, nothing is likely to change before the rhetoric does. "Iran is the only country in the world that gathers thousands of people every week to shout 'Death to America!' " says Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council in 1979. "It's foolish and no one takes it seriously. But what if we had a rally in Washington every week and we all shouted, 'Death to Iran!'? What would they think about that?"
"The language has to change," says Sick. "If Iranians want to be treated with respect, they have to behave respectfully themselves."