Argo: A Reminder of Unfinished History

The recent media hype over the Oscar-winning film, Argo, has called Iranian-US relations back to mainstream discussions of US foreign policy. The film depicts the real life events of the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979 and the six Americans who sought refuge with the Canadian Ambassador. My interest in seeing the film Argo was piqued after working with Ambassador John Limbert on a lecture event held at the Eisenhower Institute last month. Mr. Limbert is a former U.S. diplomat in Iran and was held hostage during the 1979 embassy takeover. I watched the film with fascination, amazed at the courage and strength the fifty-two hostages maintained for 444 days of captivity.

In meeting with Limbert, I asked about his immediate reaction to the takeover, shortly after the Embassy’s walls were breached. He explained that you could feel something bad was brewing for the twelve days before the embassy takeover –once the unpopular Shah was sent to the United States. As the doors of the embassy broke down, there was a shared initial reaction to keep everyone in the embassy alive. With regards to the film, Limbert said his experience was quite well portrayed, sharing, “I was one of the people who dialed every number there was seeking help, then hanging the phone up in frustration because there was no help coming.” Argo portrays the tensions between the US and Iran by focusing on the story line of the six Americans who sought refuge in the Tehran residence of the Canadian ambassador and eventually escaped from Iran after the takeover, while Ambassador Limbert details his time as a hostage inside the Embassy compound and how it has impacted his life choices and career.

Although no Americans were killed, a strong message was sent to the United States about the dissatisfaction in Iran. Limbert commented that the takeover was not intended to start conflict, but rather a way of expressing discontent through using the popular trend of the 1960’s and 70’s – sit-in demonstrations. Unlike other demonstrations of the time, this Iranian “sit-in” style takeover lasted for a year. I was curious to hear about whether Ambassador Limbert’s Foreign Service training addressed a potential hostage situation. He shared that he was trained for a kidnapping situation which emphasized the importance of creating your own space in the fortress-like embassy. Iranians are very respectful of host-guest relations. Limbert stated that the best way to handle the situation was to act as the host in your space and have the hostages act as the guests. I was shocked when Limbert mentioned that he spent over half of his time in solitary confinement; he continued to explain that there was no reasoning, no clear strategy, and the takeover escalated to become something much bigger than Iran or the United States initially imagined.

As a father and a husband, Limbert was determined to survive. Limbert’s Iranian wife and two sons were living in Saudi Arabia at the time of the takeover – their intermittent written communication inspired Limbert to survive each day. One of the most blessed days for Limbert was the day he joined his family again after being released. I asked Limbert what inspired him to continue with Foreign Service assignments after revealing  there were times in captivity when he swore to himself he would never take a posting again. Limbert paused, and then said he continued in his Foreign Service career because his experience gave him a new appreciation for what it means to be an American diplomat and to represent the United States.

The popularity of Argo goes beyond the opinion of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and needs to be viewed as a teaching tool and catalyst to reexamine US-Iranian relations. Argo makes the effort to tell a story that is interesting and intriguing while at the same time reminding us of unfinished history. The negative attitudes of both countries that are displayed in the opening scenes of Argo are almost the same attitudes held by both sides today. The anti-Americanism  and anti-Iranianism that was expressed is 1979 still lingers over thirty years later For that reason that it is so critical that the United States and Iran find a diplomatic way to build a new bond.

Ambassador Limbert set out after his captivity to improve US foreign policy relations around the world so that no other would have to experience a similar horror – this is the kind of leadership we need today. We need to see a greater appreciation for diplomacy and to use the lessons learned to progress. A renewed and strong US-Iranian relationship is pivotal to US foreign policy and to the prevention of wars in the future.