U.S. Rejects Visa for Iran Diplomat Linked to Hostages

The U.S. won’t issue a visa for an Iranian diplomat linked to the group that took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, President Barack Obama’s spokesman said today.

“We have informed the United Nations and Iran that we will not issue a visa” to Hamid Aboutalebi, who was Iran’s choice for its next ambassador to the UN, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “The selection was not viable.”

The U.S. refusal brings to a head the standoff over Iran’s UN envoy, which comes amid delicate negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear development program. Carney said the decision won’t affect the nuclear talks with Iran, which also involve Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany.

Hamid Babaei, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN, in an e-mail called the U.S. decision “regrettable” and said it was “in contravention of international law, the obligation of the host country and the inherent right of sovereign member states to designate their representatives to the United Nations.”

He didn’t elaborate on further steps Iran may take.

The U.S. decision follows votes by the House and Senate to bar Aboutalebi from the U.S. The decision on the visa is up to the executive branch, and Carney declined to say whether Obama would sign the legislation.

“We are reviewing the legislation and will work to address any issues related to its utility and its constitutionality,” Carney said.

Posing Threat

The bill doesn’t mention Aboutalebi by name. Instead, it urges denial of admission to the U.S. “to any representative to the United Nations who has engaged in espionage activities against the United States, poses a threat to United States national security interests, or has engaged in a terrorist activity against the United States.”

Aboutalebi, who previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Belgium and Italy, has been tied to a student group that led the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The U.S. responded to the takeover by breaking diplomatic ties with Iran.

Carney and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused to say explicitly why the visa was denied. However, Carney said that the issues raised in the congressional legislation and reports about Aboutalebi “reflect our views.”

President’s Authority

While the U.S. is obliged to grant entry visas to representatives of member states under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act approved by Congress in 1947, the U.S. president can deny visas to individuals deemed to pose a security threat to the U.S.

The agreement says that the terms are applicable “irrespective of the relations existing between the Governments of the persons referred to in that section and the Government of the United States.”

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

Since Iran doesn’t have an embassy in the U.S., its UN envoy is its most senior diplomat in the country.

Previous Cases

While the U.S. has previously denied visas for diplomats seeking short-term visits to attend meetings at UN headquarters in New York, UN officials and diplomats said they do not recall the U.S. barring entry for an envoy appointed to head a mission at the international body.

Iran’s Fars News Agency reported on Sept. 22, 2012, that the U.S. denied entry visas for 20 Iranian officials seeking to attend a session of the UN General Assembly.

In 1988, the U.S. denied a visa for Yasser Arafat, then-chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who wanted to speak before the UN General Assembly on the Palestinian issue. The U.S. government barred Arafat’s entry because he “knows of, condones and lends support” to acts of terrorism. The General Assembly session was moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where such visa issuance constraints do not exist.

The U.S. and Iran have been inching toward repairing ties broken after the embassy takeover. Obama phoned his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, when the Iranian president was in New York last year for the opening of the UN General Assembly. It was the first direct contact between the leaders of the U.S. and Iran in decades.

Nuclear Agreement

One of the major goals of Obama’s foreign policy has been getting an agreement that would curb Iran’s nuclear development program. The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is moving toward the capability to build a nuclear weapon, which Iran denies.

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

A six-month interim agreement reached between the so-called P5+1 and Iran ends in July. Diplomats have been meeting in Vienna on the next stage agreement.

Among the issues being discussed are how sanctions on Iran would be lifted under a prospective accord. The international sanctions regime has been crippling Iran’s economy.