Symbolic handshake could represent a huge change in US-Iranian relations

Even a handshake between US and Iranian leaders would be a huge improvement of bilateral relations and a change from Washington's “let’s not talk to them” stance that it has maintained over the last three decades, former US diplomat John Limbert told RT.

Limbert, a veteran US diplomat who was taken captive by revolutionaries in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and later served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, remains an advocate for bilateral dialogue between the two nations.

RT:What do you make of sanctions? Could they be attributed to Rouhani's fresh approach? Do you think they have worked?

John Limbert: We really don’t know and we really can’t know. We do know that the Iranian economy is suffering. It is not doing well. The question, what no one can ever prove, is how much of that is due to sanctions and how much is due to chronic mismanagement.

RT:How much influence does the president of Iran really have? We know he is not the chief decision maker, especially on an issue like this?

JL: It is ironic that when the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was president back in the 1980s, the reports used to complain about his lack of power and how he was overshadowed on one side by the prime minister and on the other side by the supreme leader at that time. What is pretty clear is that the two of them seem to have a working relationship in a way that neither President Khatami nor President Ahmadinejad had with the supreme leader. They are both members of the elites. I think they understand each other’s thinking pretty well.

RT:So there is a big difference then between Rouhani and Ahmadinejad, because Ahmadinejad made exactly the same promises, but nobody seemed to understand him over this nuclear issue. Do you think this new approach, this olive branch from Rouhani, will be accepted in the West because it is coming from a different person?

JL: I think that has a lot to do with it. The problem - if you excuse the expression - was that Ahmadinejad, because of his ill-tempered language and because of some of his more bizarre statements in the West, had become radioactive. And whatever came from him, whether it made sense or whether it did not make sense, no one would listen to him.

RT:What do you think about the diplomatic relations, the no contact policy between US diplomats and Iranian diplomats? Do you think it should still be upheld? Are there any positive effects from that at all?

JL: Not that I could tell. I’ve never agreed with that. You pursue diplomacy. You don’t just talk to your enemies. And the idea that you can punish someone by not talking to them, to me is quite bizarre indeed. 

Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri  

RT:Do you think Obama and Rouhani will actually hold a meeting during the UN General Assembly?

JL: I do not know. I would give it around a 10 to 15 percent chance of happening. If it does happen, it may just be a handshake or a brief encounter.  But even that at the symbolic level would represent a huge change from the situation of the last 34 years, when we and the Iranians have not spoken at all.

RT:So many people’s perceptions are influenced by the Western media. Tell us about your experience - what did you learn about the country and its people during your experience as a hostage in Iran?

JL: My ties to Iran go back over 50 years. What has happened is very sad. What the country has done to itself, or what the leadership has done to these very creative, savvy people - particularly the women of Iran - that is very sad indeed. I thought we would be talking to each other years ago, maybe not as friends, but at least as two states with common things to talk about.

RT:Have your views of Iran changed since that hostage crisis?

JL: No they have not. I always thought we should be talking to each other. I still believe that.

RT:Could these change of relations have a very important impact on the crisis-striken Middle East?

JL: I think they would. It is obvious that the US and Iran do have commentary on Syria for example, and things to talk about over Syria. And in a rational world, we would be doing exactly that.