U.S. Rejection of Iranian Visa Seen as Weakening UN Pact

United Nations officials and diplomats expressed concern that the Obama administration’s denial of a visa to an Iranian diplomat linked to the 1979 American embassy takeover means the U.S. is less committed to its role as host to the world organization.

The White House said yesterday that Hamid Aboutalebi won’t get the visa he needs to enter the U.S. and serve at the UN headquarters in New York. His selection by President Hassan Rouhani as the next Iranian ambassador to the UN was “not viable,” said Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s spokesman.

The Iranian mission to the UN called the move “regrettable,” and said it contravenes international law and violates U.S. agreements with the UN and nations’ sovereign right to designate their representatives.

Three UN diplomats and two UN officials, noting the Iranian statement, said Aboutalebi’s case may make way for the U.S. to use its authority more often to influence diplomatic appointments to the UN.

The standoff over Iran’s UN envoy comes amid delicate negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear development program. While Carney said the decision won’t influence the multilateral nuclear talks with Iran, the diplomats and officials said this move affects the UN’s standing as a neutral body and member states’ right to appoint envoys as they see fit.

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

Security Threat

The U.S. House and Senate have passed a bill urging denial of admission to the U.S. to any UN representative “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.”

Carney declined to say whether Obama would sign the legislation, which cedes final decision on the visa to the executive branch and doesn’t mention Aboutalebi by name.

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, and since then Tehran’s UN envoy has been its most senior diplomat in the U.S.

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

UN Expectations

While there are no international mechanisms that require the U.S. to uphold its agreement with the UN over its domestic laws, there is an expectation for the U.S. to adhere to international accords, said the two UN officials who asked not to be identified due to sensitivity of the matter.

The two officials said they see limited legal footing for the U.S. argument that an incident decades ago still poses a national security threat. One of the officials said if Iran were to file an official complaint to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that Ban would have to take a forceful stance to prevent this incident from setting a precedent for the U.S.

One Western diplomat, who also asked not to be named due to sensitivity of the matter, echoed the UN officials’ argument, while adding that the visa refusal could be justified if there were concrete intelligence on how sinister Aboutalebi’s role in the hostage crisis was.

Downplaying Participation

Aboutalebi played down his involvement in the initial occupation of the embassy in an interview he gave to the Khabaronline news website in Iran. However, his photograph is displayed on Taskhir, the website of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, a group that took part in the embassy takeover. Taskhir can mean both capture and occupation in Persian.

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

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.

Arafat’s Visa

In 1988, the U.S. denied a visa for Yasser Arafat, then-chairman of the PLO, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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