WASHINGTON: The United States will not grant a visa to Tehran’s newly appointed U.N. ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, who has been linked to the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis, the White House said Friday.
“We have informed the United Nations and Iran that we will not issue a visa for Mr. Aboutalebi,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
As the host government, the United States generally is obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at the United Nations, although there have been exceptions.
Carney said the White House was studying constitutional and other concerns surrounding a bill which overwhelmingly passed Congress and bars Aboutalebi from U.S. soil and did not say whether President Barack Obama would sign it.
“We certainly share the intent of the bill passed by Congress.”
Carney also said that there was no reason to expect that the row between Tehran and Washington over the envoy would impact progress in talks between Iran and world powers, including the United States, over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Aboutalebi, a veteran diplomat who currently heads President Hassan Rouhani’s political affairs bureau, has insisted he was not part of the hostage-taking in November 1979, when a Muslim student group seized the U.S. Embassy after the overthrow of the pro-Western shah.
But the bill passed by both chambers of Congress and sent to Obama’s desk Thursday brands Aboutalebi as a “terrorist” and lawmakers say he should not be allowed to walk around the streets of New York with diplomatic immunity.
“When Iran said they wanted to send someone to New York City, to the United Nations under diplomatic immunity, who is affiliated with those who captured our embassy and held them for 444 days, something’s wrong there and everyone realizes that,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, who sponsored the bill in the House, said in an interview.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz took the lead on the measure in the Senate, sponsoring it and securing the support of Democrats and Republicans.
“We, as a country, can send an unequivocal message to rogue nations like Iran that the United States will not tolerate this kind of provocative and hostile behavior,” Cruz said in a statement.
The overwhelming reaction and swift action on the bill reflect congressional suspicion about the administration’s outreach to Iran and the nuclear talks. Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly warned the administration about possible concessions to Iran.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, said Iran’s choice of ambassador wasn’t surprising because Tehran’s “primary motive is showing contempt for the United States. Congress has unanimously approved legislation that sends the message to Tehran: ‘Application Denied.’”
The bill would impose a blanket prohibition to “deny admission to the United States 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.”
Iran has called the rejection of Aboutalebi “not acceptable,” with Iranian state TV quoting Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham saying Aboutalebi is one of Iran’s best diplomats and arguing that he previously received a U.S. visa. Aboutalebi has insisted his involvement in the group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line was limited to translation and negotiation.
Against the backdrop of ongoing nuclear talks, the latest flare-up has drawn attention in Iran, where the front-page headline of the Etemad newspaper blared, “Dispute over Iran’s Ambassador,” and “Our ambassador has been chosen and won’t be changed.”
Denying visas to U.N. ambassadorial nominees or to foreign heads of state who want to attend United Nations events in the United States is rare, if not unprecedented.
In past, problematic cases – such as with a previous Iranian nominee in the early 1990s and more recently with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – the U.S. has either signaled opposition to the applicant and the request has been withdrawn, or the State Department has simply declined to process the application. Those options, as well as approving or denying the application, are available in the current case.
U.S. immigration law allows broad rejection of visas to foreigners and, in many cases, authorities do not have to give an explicit reason for why other than to deem the applicant a threat to national security or U.S. policy.
The law bars foreigners whose entry or activity in the U.S. would “have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States.”
It also bars people who have engaged in terrorist activity, which the law defines as including seizing and detaining others; threatening to kill, injure or continue to detain them; and violent attacks on internationally protected persons such as diplomats and other agents of the U.S. government.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late Thursday that every U.N. member state can name the ambassador of their choice to the United Nations. He added that the exchange between Iran and the U.S. on this subject was a bilateral matter and the U.N. hoped it would be resolved.