Long before Iran called America “the Great Satan,” US President John F. Kennedy worried about the image of the so-called “Ugly American” abroad – the phenomenon of arrogant and culturally ignorant US representatives harming America’s international standing at the height of the Cold War. During his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, Kennedy sought to inspire a new generation of civic-spirited young Americans, whom he challenged to serve their country and the world.
Part of Kennedy’s plan was to establish “a Peace Corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to “the progress and peace of developing countries.” Although the Peace Corps was not Kennedy’s idea – Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey had tried to launch the project in 1957 – it was Kennedy who established the organization in the early months of his presidency as a permanent federal agency within the US State Department.
Starting in 1962, the Corps sent volunteers, who were usually recent university graduates, to live and work for two years in countries willing to invite them. Their goals were to help host countries meet requirements for trained people and to promote mutual cultural understanding. While abroad, volunteers spoke local languages and worked with local professionals in education, agriculture, industry and development. Volunteers served in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Between 1962 and 1976, more than 1500 volunteers served in Iran. Many of them forged lifelong friendships with Iranian colleagues and returned to America with a cultural understanding of Iran that would prove rare and valuable when relations deteriorated following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In this series of articles, former Peace Corps volunteers recall their memorable years in Iran.
John Limbert got a very early preview of the Peace Corps’ work in Iran. In the summer of 1962, the 20-year-old Washington, D.C. native traveled to Tehran for the first time to visit his parents, since his father was working with the US government’s Point Four Program, a technical assistance project started by President Harry Truman. While he was there, he made short visits to Isfahan, Shiraz, and the Alborz Mountains.
At the same time, the Peace Corps had begun setting up its Tehran office in a small building near the US Embassy in anticipation of its first group of volunteers. “I certainly liked the people I met who were working for it, but I think there was a lot of trial and error going on as to where these people were going and what they would be doing,” Limbert says. “To occupy myself, I volunteered to help out at the new office.”
In those days, the purpose of the Peace Corps was ill-defined. Its director, Sargent Shriver, had denied it was to be a tool in the Cold War. But it was clearly intended to ensure that Americans would be seen to do good in the world. Part of Kennedy’s motivation for establishing the Peace Corps project lay in his reading of a controversial 1958 novel, The Ugly American, which had portrayed a clumsy and culturally insensitive US diplomatic corps losing hearts and minds in Southeast Asia.
“That book influenced a lot of people’s thinking,” Limbert says. “The idea of the Peace Corps was, as much as possible, to say that there is a different kind of American overseas who is in close contact with ordinary citizens, who is not working for money, and who is not working directly as part of a government mission. But to say it wasn’t a tool in the Cold War may be a little bit disingenuous. I don’t think our friends in Moscow saw it that way.”
Hospitality vs. the Perils of Eighth Grade
After Limbert finished his BA at Harvard, he applied to join the organization. Although he had already spent a few months in Iran, he simply told the Peace Corps he wanted to go to the Middle East. “At that point, the Middle East would have meant, Iran, Turkey, or Cyprus, and I would have been happy with any of those three. But Iran was the one that came up.”
Landing in Iran and getting immersed in a new culture was a thrill for Limbert, especially when he got to put his Persian language training into practice. “All that work we had done studying the Persian language, being in class five or six hours a day, studying at home, and studying after class at our training program at the University of Michigan was actually paying off. All those dialogues we had gone through actually worked!”
As Limbert and other volunteers got to know Iranians through the Iranian-American Society, he was soon impressed by their easy-going hospitality. Invited to dinner in Tehran by a group of students from the northwestern town of Sanandaj, he met a warm reception. “There were maybe 15 people, family and friends, sitting around a cloth on the floor with a delicious meal of zereshk polo, or chicken with rice and barberries. People would wander in and wander out. Whoever showed up was welcome. It conveyed a very positive feeling.”
Limbert was to work in Iran as an English teacher, although Peace Corps volunteers’ status as teachers in Iran had yet to be defined. “It was a challenge,” he says. “Our status was a little ambiguous because we weren't supposed to be replacing Iranian English teachers. Our mission, as much as it was defined, was to help the English teachers themselves, to give the interested students extra help, to teach evening classes for government employees and that kind of thing.”
Limbert ended up in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Province, where he was to work for two years.
“What I often found myself doing was substitute teaching. That was useful and was appreciated. But in terms of teaching, I wouldn't give myself terribly high marks. Some of this was difficult. Some classes I was able to do, some of them...I still remember being thrown into a class of 70 eighth graders at one of the boys' schools. Inexperienced as I was, I simply couldn’t keep order in such a situation. Frankly, they ate my lunch.”
Working Against History — and the Present
In the 1960s, America may have been a close ally of the Shah, but the United States’ standing with the Iranian public – both as the country that had helped the Shah become a dictator and as the bitter Cold War rival of Iran’s Soviet neighbor – was far from assured. “You had to work against the stereotypes and the history, which was pretty much stacked against you,” Limbert says. “The ghosts of Mossadegh and the coup of 1953 hung over a lot of what was going on,” he says, referring to the CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s popular nationalist prime minister.
“Iran was a police state, and one simply did not talk about internal politics,” he says. “The assumption was that, as an American, one was either a spy or was there for some economic benefit, none of which applied. That wasn't something you could really explain. The only thing you could do was to act out the role of a Peace Corps volunteer, be in that role, and hope that that would be self-explanatory.”
At the height of the Cold War, many Iranian leftists, taking their cue from recent history and from reports from the American civil rights struggle, saw little to admire in the US. “Negative stereotypes about Americans, that America was racist, that America was run by the Ku Klux Klan, were sort of a common theme,” Limbert says. “I hoped my encounters were positive and that someone who met me could say, ‘Well wait a minute, we knew this American and he wasn’t like that.”
Love in Sanandaj
In Sanandaj, Limbert got to see Iranian life from the inside. “There was a doctor and his family across the street from where I lived. I gave them English lessons and they gave me good meals. And one of the teachers, an older woman named Raf’at, sort of adopted me into her family. She taught me Persian. It was a remarkable experience looking back on it, because as a diplomat, or as someone serving in an aid mission, or as a military person, that kind of access would have been very difficult to get.”
While teaching in Sanandaj, Limbert met his wife, Parvaneh, a physical education teacher, who had grown up in the city. “In 1965, I got back from summer vacation and went to teach at one of the girls’ schools. I saw a beautiful young teacher I hadn’t seen before and I thought, ‘Things are looking better here.’ She challenged me to a game of Ping-Pong, at which she excelled. In front of our students, I was humiliated!”
The relationship was an unusual one for the time. “In those days, there were a number of Iranian men who married foreign women, but the opposite was fairly rare. I think the reaction was positive. This was a small town, so people knew me. I had a reputation so that when we wanted to get married, her family knew that I wasn't some kind of rascal.”
In June 1966, at the end of Limbert’s service, they married in Tehran.
The Peace Corps’ Uncertain Legacy
“Being in the Peace Corps must have changed me because I've stayed involved in Iran and things Iranian ever since,” Limbert says. From 1969 to 1972, Limbert taught English at Pahlavi University in Shiraz. In 1973, he joined the US Foreign Service. In August 1979, shortly after the Islamic Revolution, he was sent to the US Embassy in Tehran as a political officer.
When student supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the embassy on November 4 that year, he was taken hostage along with other Americans in the compound. He and 51 colleagues would be held in Iran for 444 days.
Limbert’s time in Iran with the Peace Corps provided him with insights that helped him survive the ordeal. “My experience, both with the Peace Corps and as an English teacher at Shiraz University, helped me to understand the people I was dealing with,” he says. “A lot of the students who were holding us reminded me of my students.”
In many cases, he says, the hostage takers were from small, traditional provincial towns. “Many of them had come to the big city and didn't like what they saw, such as women dressed ‘immodestly,’ alcohol freely available, and films that seemed to ignore traditional values.”
And when life as a hostage got to be too much, Limbert’s knowledge could be weaponized. “Many of our captors were very ‘book smart.’ They had to be to get into the university, which was very competitive in those days. But they showed no knowledge of how the world operated. They were ignorant even of their own religion. At one point, one of the young men said his prayers on the embassy grounds and I said to him, ‘You know, it's too bad that your prayers are all invalid.’ I said, ‘You are here on stolen property. In order to say your prayers, you need the permission of the owner of the property.’ Some of them were just simple enough that that got under their skin.”
Some of the hostage-takers had heard of the Peace Corps, too, and even held its volunteers in high regard. “At one point, I mentioned to one of the captors that I had been in the Peace Corps. He said, ‘Oh yes, in the town where I grew up, we had a Peace Corps volunteer who was an English teacher. He was really a pretty nice guy.’ I was sitting there, thinking, ‘Thanks a lot.’”
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
When Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Limbert how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations.
“Who knows?” Limbert says. “There’s no record to draw upon. The first signals are not very hopeful.” Limbert points to Trump’s appointment of Mike Flynn as his National Security Adviser. "Flynn seems to be a charter member of the chest-beaters club – a way that has brought us 37 years of sore chests.”
He also worries about the fate of the 2015 nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Will the administration cancel the JCPOA? If it does, then Trump will have undermined his own ability to negotiate executive agreements with anyone. If he unilaterally cancels the agreement of his predecessor, then who will have any confidence in making agreements with him?”
Following his ordeal as a hostage, John Limbert received the US State Department’s Award for Valor. He also holds the State Department’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. In 2009, after many years as a career diplomat, and as a professor of foreign affairs at the US Naval Academy, Limbert was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran.
Also in this series: