The morning after the film “Argo” took home the Oscar for Best Picture, former U.S. Ambassadors to Iran and hostages of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis discussed their time in captivity, the film and their hopes for diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States.
Despite concerns of “Argo” belaboring one of the lowest points of U.S./Iranian relations and inflaming tensions 32 years later, Ambassador John Limbert, the former hostage and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran under President Obama, believes that both Iran and the United States are culpable in stoking the flames of the past and that it’s time to move on.
On Feb. 26, negotiators from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (known as the P5+1) meet with Iranian counterparts in Kazakhstan in hopes of doing just that. “The ghost of those events will be in the conference room and will do their best to prevent the parties from making progress,” Ambassador Limbert says.
Continued international expectation for sweeping and profound change in Iranian political rhetoric as a vehicle for more successful negotiations seems too hopeful as well, says Limbert.
“The Islamic Republic, like it or not, is what it is and we have things to talk about, even if we are not friends.”
#Building a base for diplomacy
While much of the P5+1 negotiations will be focused on Iran’s nuclear program, former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ambassador Bruce Laingen said he believes that the United States is too far removed from Iran, both diplomatically and in basic understanding, to see meaningful movement.
“I have reasonable expectations for tomorrow,” said Laingen. “I have expectations that they’ll agree to something, even if it is to meet again in a month.”
Beyond that, according to Laingen, it is unlikely that there will be much movement without more mutual understanding of where the two sides stand. Ambassador Limbert agrees, saying “we are talking about Iran’s obligations; Iran is talking about their rights.”
But without American diplomats and citizens on the ground in Iran, Laingen fears that no one on the U.S. side of the table can truly understand what the Iranian government and its people truly want to accomplish.
“Americans can’t empathize because we’re not there,” said Laingen. “We haven’t been since I got on that airplane [after the hostage crisis]. I was the last functioning American official there and I couldn’t do a damn thing.”
With a complex issue like nuclear policy, the ambassadors believe it may be time to step back and look at solving underlying issues first, even if it means taking small steps.
With decades of mistrust festering as the United States and Iran butt heads, Limbert said, “The United States and Iran must open up a dialogue on areas where there is political space on both sides to break the cycle of mistrust.”
Without that trust, said Limbert, “the nuclear issue may be just too politically difficult.”
If that’s true, “sustained negotiations on other issues – starting small – will be the most effective way to start the countries on a new path of diplomatic engagement.”
In the eyes of these two former ambassadors and hostages of Iran, it is important to put faith in diplomacy. However, if you’re expecting overnight results, it’s best not to get your hopes up. Instead, sit back, relax and enjoy the film.
“I’ve seen Argo…. It’s got a little too much Hollywood in it at times, but I’ve benefited from it. I recommend it.”
(Mark Kauzlarich is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington DC bureau)