The U.S. government objects to Hamid Abutalebi entering the United
States because of his suspected participation in a Muslim student
group that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days starting in 1979,
when the group seized control of the U.S. embassy in the Iranian
Iran on Wednesday rejected U.S. reservations about the veteran
diplomat as "unacceptable." Abutalebi has played down his role in
the embassy takeover, saying that he was only a translator for some
of the militants.
U.N. officials, diplomats and academics could not recall past cases
of the United States denying a U.N. ambassador's visa. Some
expressed concern over the precedent it could set.
"There would be a strong feeling internationally, or at least among
diplomats, that that is not within the purview of the host country,"
said Jeffrey Laurenti, a veteran U.N. analyst and former fellow at
the Century Foundation, a New York public policy research group.
Two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said the ban could be
announced soon and was being debated by top Obama administration
policymakers. The officials asked not to be identified because they
are not authorized to comment publicly.
A third U.S. official said Iran may have chosen Abutalebi as an
"intentional provocation" given sensitivities over the hostage
crisis, a defining moment in U.S.-Iranian relations that led the
United States to cut diplomatic relations with Iran.
The crisis also became a morale-sapping drag on Jimmy Carter's
presidency, and is widely viewed as a significant factor in his loss
to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration told Tehran that Abutalebi's
nomination was "not viable." That drew a strong rebuke from Iran on
"The attitude of the U.S. government towards Iran's (choice) for
U.N. envoy is not acceptable. Iran has officially conveyed its
views," IRNA, Iran's state news agency, quoted a Foreign Ministry
spokesperson as saying.
Abutalebi was among Iran's best and most experienced diplomats, the
spokesperson said, noting that he had "ambassadorship experience" in
Italy, Belgium and Australia.
So far at least, the controversy does not appear to have influenced
sensitive negotiations between major powers and Iran over curbing
Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing of economic sanctions,
A DIFFICULT LEGAL QUESTION
As the host nation for the U.N. headquarters, the United States
generally is required to provide foreign diplomats access to the
However, the State Department said last week that U.S. law allows it
to deny diplomats visas for reasons of "security, terrorism, and
foreign policy" — categories that a department spokeswoman
acknowledged could be interpreted liberally.
[to top of second column]
The right to deny entry to Abutalebi poses a knotty legal question
that pits the U.S. government's authority to police its own borders
against the agreement the United States has with the United Nations,
in which it pledges to allow envoys transit from the nation's border
to the headquarters building in New York.
Further muddying the waters is a 1947 Joint Resolution of Congress,
which said nothing should be seen as "diminishing, abridging, or
weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own
security and completely control the entrance of aliens" into any
part of the United States aside from the U.N. headquarters.
"The State Department has relied on this reservation to deny visas
to individuals deemed to pose a security risk to the United States,"
said John Bellinger, the top legal adviser to the State Department
from 2005 to 2009.
In an interview, Bellinger said the issue remains in dispute because
some countries question whether the United States has such rights
Last year, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was unable to
travel to New York for the U.N. General Assembly in September after
his visa application was left pending, according to Sudanese
officials. Bashir has been indicted for war crimes in Sudan's Darfur
region by the International Criminal Court.
In 2012, the United States denied visas to about 20 Iranian
government officials hoping to attend the General Assembly,
including two ministers, Iran's Fars news agency reported.
If it chose, Iran could complain directly to U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon about Abutalebi's case.
The 1947 host country agreement also says disputes over the
agreement should be referred to a tribunal of three arbitrators: one
each chosen by the United Nations and United States and the third
agreed to by both or appointed by the president of the International
Court of Justice.
(Additonal reporting by Mehrdad Balali in Dubai, Michelle Nichols at
the United Nations, Lou Charbonneau in Vienna and Lawrence Hurley,
Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; writing by
William Maclean and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Jason Szep and David
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