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Philo Dibble, 60; diplomat helped free US hikers in Iran

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / October 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Philo L. Dibble, a career Foreign Service officer who completed one of his most sensitive and visible diplomatic assignments — helping negotiate the release of two US hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran — 10 days before his death, died Oct. 1 at his home in McLean, Va. He was 60.

His wife, Elizabeth, said he had a heart attack.

Mr. Dibble joined the State Department in 1980 and before his initial retirement in 2006 had become one of its leading authorities on Iran. Last year, he came out of retirement to be the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iran.

“Philo was fully engaged and integral to every part of US Iran policy,’’ Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said in a statement. “One of his most spectacular successes came last month when Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released from over two years of unjust imprisonment in Iran.’’

Bauer, Fattal, and Sarah Shourd had been hiking in a mountainous region of Turkey when they were seized by Iranian authorities in July 2009. They were charged with espionage and held in a Tehran prison known for its brutality.

The hikers maintained their innocence and said they had no connection to the US government. If they had crossed the unmarked border into Iran, they said, it was inadvertent.

Mr. Dibble, then newly installed in his position at the State Department, had a role in arranging Shourd’s release in September 2010. In August, Bauer and Fattal were convicted by an Iranian court of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. Mr. Dibble became the State Department’s “point man’’ in attempting to secure the hikers’ freedom, often negotiating through back channels with diplomats from other countries.

“He coordinated the US government’s efforts to gain their freedom,’’ Feltman said, “working closely with the Swiss, the Omanis, and all the various world leaders and civil society groups that interceded on their behalf.’’

Mr. Dibble’s job was particularly difficult because the United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1980 hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held captive in the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

After several delays and the reported payment of a bail of $500,000 each, Bauer and Fattal, both 29, were freed from their Iranian prison Sept. 21. (A State Department official said the US government had no role in a financial exchange for any of the hikers.) Bauer and Fattal were flown to Oman, where they bounded off an airplane to greet their families and Shourd, who had become engaged to Bauer in prison. They returned to the United States on Sept. 24.

Mr. Dibble’s role in the negotiations was not announced by the State Department until after his death. He was scheduled to meet the freed hikers this week in Washington. His wife, who is also a Foreign Service officer, will greet them in her husband’s stead.

Philo Louis Dibble was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father, who was also named Philo Dibble, was a Foreign Service officer.

The younger Dibble lived in Turkey, Austria, and Switzerland during his childhood,

He was a 1976 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis. After receiving a master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University in 1980, he joined the State Department.

Mr. Dibble’s second overseas assignment, his wife said, was to Beirut.

He arrived April 18, 1983, the same day the US Embassy was bombed. When no one met him at the airport, Mr. Dibble took a taxi to the embassy, paying the driver with cigarettes, only to find a substantial portion of the building in smoldering ruins.

Mr. Dibble later served in Tunisia, Pakistan, and Italy and was deputy chief of mission in Syria.

He leaves his wife of 24 years, Elizabeth Link Dibble of McLean; three daughters, Kate of Houston, Sarah of Charlottesville and Caroline of McLean; his mother, Cleopatra B. of Washington; a sister; and a brother.