Iran-U.S. in Standoff on Envoy as Nuclear Deadline Nears

The U.S. and Iran today escalated their standoff over Iran’s choice for its next ambassador to the United Nations, as diplomats in Vienna pushed forward at talks on restraining the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

After President Barack Obama’s spokesman yesterday labeled the selection of Hamid Aboutalebi, who has been linked to a student group that took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, as “not viable,” a spokeswoman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry today called the U.S. stance “not acceptable.”

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in Tehran that Aboutalebi is one of the Iran’s best diplomats. “The U.S. administration’s approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s representative to the UN is not acceptable,” he said.

Both governments said they have officially communicated their positions. The White House press secretary stopped short of saying that the U.S. would deny Aboutalebi a visa to serve at UN headquarters in New York.

The U.S. and Iran have been inching toward repairing ties broken after the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by a group of radicals during the 1979 Islamic revolution that resulted in 52 Americans being held for 444 days. One of the major goals of U.S. policy has been getting an agreement that would curb Iran’s nuclear development program.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel yesterday it would take Iran two months to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon.

Interim Agreement

A six-month interim agreement reached between the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany -- and Iran ends in July.

Diplomats are meeting in Vienna today to set the terms for meeting the deadline. Among the issues being discussed are how sanctions on Iran would be lifted under a prospective accord.

The U.S. administration regards the dispute over the UN envoy as separate from the nuclear issue, and Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said it’s unlikely to limit negotiations.

“I don’t expect the issue over the ambassador will directly affect the talks in Vienna or the strong determination of the P5+1 and Iran to reach a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program,” he said in an e-mail.

Obama has authority to deny Aboutalebi entry to the U.S.

United Nations

Under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act approved by Congress in 1947, the president can deny visas to individuals deemed to pose a security threat to the U.S., said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser who is now partner at Arnold and Porter LLP in Washington.

If Obama decides a person is a threat “then we’re not required to give that person a visa, and that would be consistent with our obligations under the headquarters agreement,” Bellinger said. “Whether that’s good policy or not that would be up to others to decide.”

The issue also is entangled in domestic U.S. politics.

Democrats joined with Republicans in the Senate on April 7 to pass legislation sponsored by Texas Senator Ted Cruz barring Aboutalebi from entering the U.S.

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

Domestic Politics

With Cruz a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination, the dispute is being pushed into the 2016 campaign with Obama in the middle.

“If he doesn’t accept the ambassador, then he runs into problems with the Iranians,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research organization. “If he does accept the ambassador, he’s soft on Iran.”

Cordesman said he knew of no legal precedent for Congress to block an ambassador or issuance of a visa, a responsibility left to the executive branch.

Some of the same legal questions came up in 2005 when Iran applied for a visa for then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the UN and they apply to Aboutalebi’s visa application. Ahmadinejad was representative of a UN member state as would be Aboutalebi, Bellinger said.

The Department of Homeland Security initially found Ahmadinejad ineligible for a visa to enter the U.S. because of suspicions he participated in the embassy seizure, only to have the State Department grant it months later after interviewing former hostages.

UN Committee

The UN’s Committee on Relations with the Host Country, established in 1971, governs relationships between countries where envoys are sent and the countries that send them. That committee has 19 member countries including the U.S, Cuba, Iraq and Libya. Iran is not a member.

The agreement prohibits the U.S. from imposing “any impediments to transit” to or from the UN headquarters. The State Department has suggested there are exceptions to the agreement. UN delegates to the U.S. from Iran, North Korea, Cuba and now Syria are allowed into a limited zone around the United Nations building in New York and are restricted from other travel in the U.S.

“We haven’t been dealing specifically with this case right now” and it remains an issue between the U.S. and Iran, Farhan Haq, UN deputy spokesman, told reporters yesterday in New York. “If there’s a need for us to have a role down the line, we’ll consider it.”