White House Tells Iran That Hostage Taker ‘Not Viable’

The U.S. told Iran that the ambassador it’s chosen for the United Nations is “not viable” because he was part of a group that took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, President Barack Obama’s spokesman said.

The selection of Hamid Aboutalebi as UN envoy “is extremely troubling,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “The U.S. government has informed the government of Iran that this potential selection is not viable.”

Carney repeatedly referred to Aboutalebi as a “potential” choice and refused to say whether the U.S. would refuse to issue a visa if the government in Tehran decides press the issue.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in Tehran today that the choice has been made and that Aboutalebi “is qualified for that position.”

The dispute comes at a delicate time in U.S.-Iranian relations. The U.S. is leading negotiations aimed at getting Iran to halt its nuclear development program and has eased some sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for progress. Obama, who has vowed he won’t allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, has come under criticism from some members of Congress for agreeing to ease pressure on Iran.

Senate Measure

The U.S. Senate passed legislation yesterday to bar Aboutalebi from entering the U.S. because of his involvement with the group that took over the embassy, resulting in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.

The crisis led to a break in relations between Iran and the U.S. that continues today.

“The United States Senate is not just going to ignore this latest insult,” Republican Senator Cruz of Texas, the sponsor of the measure, said of Iran’s envoy pick in a speech on the Senate floor.

The Senate measure would amend the Foreign Relations Authorization Act by adding UN representatives who have participated in terrorist acts to the list of those to whom the president may deny visas. The list already includes those who’ve spied on the U.S. or could threaten national security.

Aboutalebi is Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium and Italy. He was a member of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, a group that seized the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. Imam was an honorific used for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution.

Executive Responsibility

“We share the Senate’s concerns regarding this case,” Carney said. The legislation is largely symbolic because the issuance of visas is part of foreign policy, the responsibility of the executive branch.

Carney also said the U.S. has obligations as the host of the UN.

Under the United Nations Headquarters agreement authorized by Congress in 1947, the President has broad authority to deny visas to individuals deemed to pose a security threat, said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser who is now partner at Arnold and Porter LLP in Washington.

“The president would have the authority to do it, but it’s certainly something that would be controversial,” said Bellinger. “Other countries might criticize the United States, particularly because there’s an international law obligation to admit people, but the president could conclude that admitting someone who had been in past hostage taking of Americans continued to pose a security threat.”

Complicated Call

“The short answer is it’s complicated,” he said. “There has been some precedent and it has stirred up criticism from other countries in the past.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, who was in office when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun and lost his re-election bid, in part, because of the hostage crisis, said in an interview with Washington radio station WTOP last week that he favored letting Aboutalebi take the UN post.

“You know, those were college students at that time, and I think that they have matured,” Carter said. “I think it would be inappropriate for the United States to try to block someone that Iran wanted to choose.”

This isn’t the first time the U.S. has had to grapple with a visa request for a prominent Iranian official.

Earlier Visas

In 2005, Iran applied for a visa for then-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 it months later after interviewing former hostages.

Other leaders at have been at odds with the U.S. and come to New York for UN meetings include the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the late Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In 2006, following then-President George W. Bush to the podium by a day, Chavez called the U.S. leader a devil and said the room “smells of sulphur still today.”

“All kinds of leaders from Cuba to Africa who could be accused of horrible crimes and opposing U.S. policies have received visas,”said Gary Sick, the top Iran specialist on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council staff during the hostage crisis. “There is no way to know why some people get the visa and some don’t.”

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