President Obama has taken the unprecedented step of denying a visa to Iran’s choice to be its ambassador to the United Nations in New York – a decision that will please Congress but which may shake up the delicate talks the US is engaged in with Tehran over its nuclear program.
The decision to deny a visa to diplomat Hamid Abutalebi follows the unanimous passage this week by both houses of Congress – when does that ever happen? – of legislation demanding that the Iranian be barred from entering the US.
The objection to Mr. Abutalebi? As a university student in 1979 he was associated with the student group that seized the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
“We have informed the United Nations and Iran that we will not issue a visa to Mr. Abutalebi,” White House spokesman Jay Carney announced Friday. Mr. Carney, who had said earlier in the week that the choice of Abutalebi was “not viable” without specifying that a visa would be denied, suggested Friday that Mr. Obama had made his decision even before Congress passed its legislation.
“We certainly share the intent of the bill passed by Congress as we have already told the UN and Iran that we will not issue a visa,” Carney said.
The US decision leaves it at odds with the commitment it made to the United Nations in 1947 to provide unimpeded entry to UN headquarters in New York to the diplomats that UN member states choose to assign there. The decision also comes in the midst of Obama administration efforts to seize the election of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last June to reverse decades of antagonistic relations with Tehran. The US and five other world powers are currently in negotiations with Iran to try to resolve diplomatically the threat posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program.
Iran had already made clear its view that any effort to block Abutalebi from entering the US to take up his UN post would be “unacceptable.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry, noting Abutalebi has served as Iran’s ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy, and the European Union, called him “one of Iran’s most qualified diplomats.”
The collision between Iran and Congress had left Obama with two unpalatable choices: violate the 1947 “Headquarters Agreement” the US reached with the nascent UN, or defy a unanimous Congress.
The Obama administration, amid the complex negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, has been laboring to convince a dubious Congress that it is toeing a hard line with Tehran. It clearly wishes the choice of Abutalebi had not been made in the first place.
“Our preference certainly would have been that he wouldn’t have been nominated to begin with,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week.
The White House appeared to suggest to Tehran that it withdraw Abutalebi’s posting and offer it to someone else when spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that “we’ve made clear and have communicated to the Iranians that the selection they’ve put forward is not viable.”
But when Tehran showed no signs of backing down, Obama was left with a choice of infuriating Congress – fodder in the coming midterm election campaign for Republicans who blast the president for being soft on America’s adversaries – or raise questions internationally about the US role as host of the UN.
The agreement that President Harry Truman signed (and Congress agreed to) with the UN in 1947 stipulates that the US is obligated as host country to grant UN members’ envoys’ access to UN headquarters “irrespective of the relations existing between the Governments of the [envoys] and the Government of the United States.”
Accordingly the US has never barred a UN ambassador, and has routinely granted visas to Iranian diplomats named to work in Iran’s UN mission in New York (although the US does limit Iranian diplomats’ movement outside of New York). The US has also granted visas to controversial leaders to attend the UN General Assembly in September – people otherwise anathema to the US like Fidel Castro, Muammar Qaddafi, or Robert Mugabe – often over loud objections from Congress.
Only once did the US deny a visa to a leader to visit the UN: In 1988 it barred Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, a move that led to a 151-2 vote in the General Assembly condemning the US for violating “the international legal obligations of the host country.” Only the US and Israel voted “no.”
But the US has also insisted since the UN was headquartered in New York that it would reserve the right to take national security concerns into consideration in granting foreigners access to US soil, UN experts note.
Larry Johnson, a former UN assistant-secretary-general for legal affairs, says that in 1947 Congress unilaterally added a separate section to the headquarters agreement stipulating that nothing in the accord should be construed as “diminishing … or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security.”
But even Congress excluded the UN “headquarters district” from this “national security” exception to the obligation to grant visas to designated diplomats, says Mr. Johnson, now an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School in New York.
The US did invoke this “national security” section in the 1950s to bar some low-level diplomats from attending UN meetings in New York, but mostly it has been “dormant,” says Johnson – who adds, however, that the US has “long made it known” that it would invoke the “national security” section to bar “any Iranian who was involved in the hostage taking.”
That raises the question of just how “involved” Abutalebi was in the hostage crisis, Johnson said in an e-mail. Abutalebi says he was a translator for the militants who stormed the embassy and insists he played no leadership role.
Some members of the exiled Iranian opposition say there are other reasons to deny Abutalebi a visa to enter the US. Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, also known by the acronym MEK, accuses Abutalebi of being the “mastermind” behind the 1993 assassination in Rome of Mohamed Hossein Naghdi, a prominent former Iranian official who had defected to the MEK and was director of its Rome office at the time of his death.
Abutalebi was no longer Iran’s ambassador to Rome at the time of Mr. Naghdi’s assassination, and he was never charged in connection with the murder. But Mr. Jafarzadeh says the evidence, including from a 1996 British parliamentary report, points to the diplomat as the intellectual author of the “terror assassination.”
The Iranian government says the accusations against Abutalebi are baseless and reflect the MEK’s efforts to take advantage of the diplomat being in the news.
But some members of Congress have not refrained from associating Abutalebi with terrorism. In his Senate floor statement Monday seeking support of his bill to bar Abutalebi from receiving a visa, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz referred to the Iranian diplomat as a “known terrorist.”
With a unanimous vote of Congress to contend with, Obama may have had little choice but to deny Abutalebi a visa, some diplomatic analysts say. In the past the US government has gone behind the scenes to “informally discourage an appointment” it wasn’t keen on, says Columbia’s Johnson, or it has simply sat on the objectionable visa application.