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Commemorating 4 Decades Since The Iran Hostage Crisis

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, we are marking 40 years since the defining event of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. At that time, anger toward America had been growing. And then things boiled over when protesters in Tehran stormed the U.S. embassy.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Iranian students continue to hold more than 50 hostages at the American embassy in Tehran this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They stormed the embassy, fought the Marine guards for three hours, overpowered them and took dozens of American hostages.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: But throughout this night in Washington, officials will continue their search for some way to negotiate the hostages' freedom.

KING: It was supposed to be a sit-in. It turned into a hostage crisis that lasted for 444 days.

GREENE: It led President Carter to expel Iranian diplomats and launch a failed rescue mission. It was not until the last day of Carter's presidency that their release was secured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: Good morning. On his last full day in office, President Carter announced that the United States and Iran have reached a final complete agreement on the release of the American hostages in Iran. I'm Bob Edwards. Today is Monday...

GREENE: And we have one of those hostages with us this morning. John Limbert was a Foreign Service officer in Tehran four decades ago and among the Americans held captive. Mr. Limbert, thank you so much for taking a few minutes for us this morning.

JOHN LIMBERT: My pleasure, David. Good morning.

GREENE: What is it like to listen to some of that old news footage of the experience?

LIMBERT: Oh, it's very strange, and it's hard to believe that it's been 40 years since that time. And also, it reminds me that I'm a bit lucky to be here. This was a very near thing. And we all, all of us, got out alive. We got out safely eventually. But it could have gone another direction, could have gone very badly.

GREENE: So there were times when you feared you were not going to get out alive.

LIMBERT: That was always a possibility, especially at the very beginning when the attack came.

GREENE: Can you take me back? I mean, as you replay those 400-plus days, like, what's a memory that still just stays with you vividly?

LIMBERT: I think that I - I think the memory was something one of your people just said, that what started out as a 1970s style student sit-in turned into an international melodrama that ruined Jimmy Carter's presidency and set Iran and the U.S. on this poisonous path of mutual exchanging threats, exchanging insults - and this path they've been on for 40 years, and they can't get out of it. It's like there's a poison in the system, and that poison has just lingered on.

GREENE: I was amazed to learn that, just a few months into your captivity, you had an unannounced visitor - Ali Khamenei, one of the leaders of the revolution, who is now, of course, the supreme leader of Iran. I mean, what happened? What did you tell him?

LIMBERT: (Laughter) He came. And it was April, April of 1980, so about six - five or six months into our captivity. And that morning, we'd had a visit from two Swiss officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross. And the - I suppose the Iranian government, not to be outdone, said, well, if they're going to check on the welfare of the prisoners, then we will too.

And they selected Khamenei. Khamenei at the time was not a first-rank cleric. He was not an Ayat. He did not have the rank of Ayatollah in the scholarly rank. He was, like, a - maybe a associate professor. But he was also Friday prayer of Tehran, which is a big deal. That's a major post. He was about my age and about 40.

And what happened was when he came in, I'd been in solitary for a while. I was in a space in solitary. And we fell into, maybe without thinking about it, this interaction - a very Iranian interaction between a host and a guest. So I insisted that he sit down. I excused myself that I had nothing to offer him to eat or drink...

GREENE: Wow.

LIMBERT: ...Because that's what a host must do. And he fell into the role of the guest, I think, without thinking of it.

GREENE: Wow. So what was the conversation like? I mean, you're in solitary confinement trying to play host. I can't even wrap my head around this. What was the conversation?

LIMBERT: Well, the point at - the point I made was - the point I wanted to make was what had happened and what his compatriots had done was outrageous, and it was disgraceful. I was not going to argue international law. I was not going to argue Islamic law with him. I wasn't going to berate him or lecture him. But what I - I went back to a very deep Iranian tradition, one with great roots in their culture, something the Iranians called Taarof, which is a - almost untranslatable. But it's a series - it's a kind of rules for interaction.

And I said, you know, sir, Iranians are very hospitable people. They love their guests. Sometimes they love their guests too much, and they don't want them to leave. And I think in this case, you have overdone the Taarof and kept us here.

And basically, my point was, look, sir, I know how to treat a guest properly. I know what my obligations are. I know what I should do. Your countrymen do not know how. They do not know how in their own culture. They have violated the deepest traditions of their own culture and put this here. And he is a very intelligent man, and he immediately understood what I was getting at.

GREENE: Wow. What would you tell him today?

LIMBERT: I don't know. I haven't met - we - I've never met him - I haven't met him since. So we're about the same age. I think he's maybe two or three years older than I am. But I would ask if he remembered that. The other thing I would call him on was he - after he visited not only me, but others in the group, he went out and made a statement to the press about how happy we all were, and how much we loved our captors and how much we thanked them for all the nice things they were doing, which I though was absolutely shameless.

GREENE: John Limbert, sadly, we have to stop there. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.