President Barack Obama has authority to deny a visa to Iran’s newest choice as envoy to the UN, yet doing so would open up risks for U.S. foreign policy.
The decision in the case of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was part of the group that took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, is being made at a delicate point in U.S.-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act approved by Congress in 1947, the president has authority to 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 short answer is, it’s complicated,” he said.
Obama’s bind was on display yesterday when press secretary Jay Carney called Iran’s selection of Aboutalebi “troubling” and said the U.S. informed Iran that the ambassador it has picked for the UN is “not viable.”
Even so, Carney refused to say whether the U.S. would decline to issue a visa if the government in Tehran decides to press the matter, and he repeatedly referred to Aboutalebi as a “potential” choice.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in Tehran yesterday that the choice has been made and that Aboutalebi “is qualified for that position.” Aboutalebi is Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium and Italy.
The issue also is entangled in domestic U.S. politics.
One of Obama’s major foreign policy goals has been pushing Iran into halting its nuclear development program. The U.S. and other world powers have eased some sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for progress. The six-month interim agreement ends in July and Obama, who has vowed he won’t allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, has come under criticism from some members of Congress for letting up pressure on Iran.
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. because of his involvement with the group that took over the embassy, resulting in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.
That crisis led to a break in relations between Iran and the U.S. that continues today.
“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.
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, Bellinger said. Ahmadinejad was representative of a UN member state as would be Aboutalebi, he 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.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election bid, in part, because of the hostage crisis, said in an interview with Washington radio station WTOP last week that he favored letting Aboutalebi take the UN post.
“You know, those were college students at that time, and I think that they have matured,” Carter said. “I think it would be inappropriate for the United States to try to block someone that Iran wanted to choose.”
In an indication there may yet be an opening for a resolution, a former high-ranking Iranian official has called on Aboutalebi to withdraw.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as a vice-president under Mohammad Khatami between 2001 and 2004, wrote on his Facebook page that if Aboutalebi were to pull his name from the running, extremists on both sides would be “check mated.”
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.”
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