Hostage-Taking Past of Iran’s UN Pick a Dilemma for Obama

A U.S. Hostage is seen in Tehran in 1979
A U.S. hostage is shown blindfolded by his captors in the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, on Nov. 8, 1979. Source: -/AFP via Getty Images

Iran has forced a foreign policy dilemma on the Obama administration by choosing as its next United Nations ambassador an official who belonged to the group that held 52 Americans hostage in Tehran for 444 days.

Iran’s government has applied for the U.S. visa required for Hamid Aboutalebi to take the UN post in New York, Bloomberg News reported March 29. Aboutalebi, Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium and Italy, was a member of the group of radical students that seized the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979.

The Iranian move poses a headache for President Barack Obama’s administration as it tries to balance international negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program against skepticism at home about whether the Islamic Republic has changed its ways, said Michael Singh, managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

“Denying a visa to Iran’s ambassador-designate could upset President Obama’s still-delicate diplomatic re-engagement with Iran,” Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, said in an e-mailed statement. “But granting the visa will prove controversial in the U.S. and will reinforce the impression among regional allies that Washington is willing to ignore Iranian misbehavior in our pursuit of a nuclear accord.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani chose Aboutalebi to serve at the UN, which is headquartered on international soil in New York, after an interim nuclear deal between Iran and six international powers was forged on Nov. 24.

‘Procedural Hurdle’

The State Department hasn’t responded to the visa application, according to an Iranian diplomat who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity. There is no deadline for the U.S. to act.

The department is likely to take its time investigating the application, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy research organization.

“This is now a procedural hurdle for both sides,” Maloney said. “It will not just be approved without an appropriate debate at the State Department.”

Hamid Babaei, a spokesman for Iran’s UN Mission in New York, declined to comment. Aboutalebi has said in the past that he acted mostly as a translator and negotiator during the embassy occupation.

“We don’t as a matter of practice comment on visa applications.” said Marie Harf, deputy State Department spokeswoman. Asked if the U.S. is aware that Aboutalebi was a member of the hostage-taking group, Harf declined to comment.

“Anyone can submit a visa application, and it will be evaluated as we do all visa applications, in accordance with our procedures,” she said. “We don’t speculate on what the outcome might be.”

‘Not Buried’

Rouhani has offered the world an image of greater Iranian moderation, a process that began with his first speech to the United Nations in September. At the same time, he has to contend with hard-line forces at home, including those who are hostile to any rapprochement with the U.S.

A decision to grant a visa to Aboutalebi could spark opposition in the U.S. Congress and beyond because memories of the 1979-1980 hostage ordeal remain raw, according to Maloney. “This is not buried history,” she said.

Michael Metrinko, a former diplomat and hostage who endured beatings and interrogations during his 444 days of captivity, said it was “really stupid” and ironic for Iran to pick someone associated with taking diplomats hostage to become its top diplomat at the UN.

“The Iranian government officials have never understood that they did anything wrong,” Metrinko said of the hostage crisis. “It was the most egregious violation of diplomatic norms and protocols.”

‘Torture’ Compensation

“There’ll not be any rapprochement with Iran until hostages are compensated for their torture,” said Tom Lankford, an Alexandria, Virginia-based lawyer who’s been trying to win compensation for the hostages since 2000. “It’s important that no state sponsor of terror can avoid paying for acts of terror.”

The U.S. is obliged to grant entry visas to representatives of UN member-states in accordance with an agreement signed in 1947. Still, this is not the first time the U.S. has had to grapple with a controversial visa request for a prominent Iranian official.

In 2005, Iran applied for a visa for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when allegations surfaced that he was one of the hostage-takers. The Department of Homeland Security initially found Ahmadinejad ineligible for a visa to enter the U.S., only to have the State Department grant the visa months later after interviewing former hostages.

Cuba to Africa

Some U.S. foes have received visas in the past, said Gary Sick, the top Iran specialist on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council staff during the hostage crisis.

“All kinds of leaders from Cuba to Africa who could be accused of horrible crimes and opposing U.S. policies have received visas,” Sick said. “There is no way to know why some people get the visa and some don’t.”

Aboutalebi has said he didn’t take part in the initial occupation of the embassy, according to an interview he gave to the Khabaronline news website in Iran.

“On a few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French,” Aboutalebi said, according to Khabaronline. “I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released, and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

He referred to the release of some embassy staff members during the first few weeks of the crisis in November 1979.

Photo Displayed

Although Aboutalebi downplays his involvement, his photograph is displayed on Taskhir, the website of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line. Taskhir can mean both capture and occupation in Persian.

According to Mohammad Hashemi, one of the students who led the occupation of the embassy, Iran’s revolutionary government sent Abbas Abdi, another architect of the occupation, and Aboutalebi as emissaries to Algiers. The Algerian capital at that time was a mecca of third-world liberation movements, including the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Some of the students who took the hostages formed the backbone of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, according to the book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” by Mark Bowden.

Others have had extended political careers. Masoumeh Ebtekar, a former spokeswoman for the hostage-takers, is a vice president in Iran under Rouhani and head of the Department of Environment.

Not all have survived the shifting political developments in Iran. Abdi, one of the first to enter the embassy compound, became the editor of reformist newspaper Salaam, which was shut down in 1999. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2003, and released in 2005.