Talk to Tehran?

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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."

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