For years, Iran and other American adversaries have complained that Washington plays hardball with visa rules to bar politically controversial delegates. They’re right.
Hamid Aboutalebi, Iran's choice as its next ambassador to the United Nations, has freely admitted that he served as a translator for the student group that in 1979 stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and sparked a 444-day-long hostage crisis. In the eyes of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, that makes Aboutalebi a terrorist and an unfit choice to represent Iran at Turtle Bay. On Friday, the White House announced that it agreed with Cruz and said that it would deny Aboutalebi a visa to the United States, making him the first U.N. ambassador to be rejected by the United States.
Calling his selection by Iran "not viable" and "extremely troubling," Press Secretary Jay Carney had hinted earlier in the week that the White House might ban Aboutalebi from entering the United States. But if the White House hoped to avoid a confrontation with Iran amid sensitive talks on the country's nuclear program, pressure on Capitol Hill made a clash over Aboutalebi all but inevitable. On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a measure already passed in the Senate that would deny a visa to any U.N. ambassador found to have engaged in terrorist activity against the United States. "We concur with the Congress and share the intent of the bill," Carney said, adding that the White House had informed both Iran and the U.N. of its decision.
In a statement to reporters, Hamid Babaei, a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the U.N., criticized the move. "It is a regrettable decision by the U.S. administration, which is 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 said.
The decision to ban Aboutalebi from taking up his post in New York comes on the heels of talks in Vienna between Tehran and Western powers aimed at reaching a final agreement to curtail Iran's nuclear program. Following those talks, negotiators said that "intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process."
Speaking to reporters Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted that the move to bar Aboutalebi won't affect those negotiations.
The decision sets up a potential clash with the United Nations, whose 1947 agreement with the United States governing the body's New York headquarters clearly forbids Washington from prohibiting the entry of U.N. ambassadors. "The federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of representatives of Members," the agreement reads. Under the terms of that agreement, disputes between the United States and the body are to be settled through arbitration. Stephane Dujarric, the chief spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, declined to comment on the White House's decision.
Though the United States has previously attempted to bar the participation of certain groups at the U.N, this is the first time Washington has prevented a U.N. ambassador from taking up his position, according to Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University and an expert on international law. In 1988, the United States barred Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, from addressing the U.N. General Assembly. In response, the U.N. temporarily relocated its proceedings to Geneva. A year earlier, Congress attempted to force the PLO to close its offices at U.N. headquarters, an effort that ultimately failed.
In approving the agreement, Congress added a provision stating that nothing in the text would limit the United States' ability to preserve its national security. That addendum has never been formally accepted by the United Nations, and the United States has rarely invoked the clause. "Up until now, the U.S. has hesitated to use it. Even with regard to the PLO in earlier years, the U.S. government and courts have resisted clamping down on their ability to come to New York City," Kal Raustiala, a law professor at UCLA. "So this is a big deal and a definite stretch of the intent of the Headquarters Agreement."
According to Edward Luck, a historian and a former special adviser to Ban, it's unclear whether the national security provision can be applied to Aboutalebi. "There has to be some manifest reason and clear evidence of someone" posing a threat to U.S. national security, and "it's not clear in this case whether there is evidence," Luck said.
For years, Iran and other countries hostile to the United States have argued that Washington has abused its position as a host country and barred delegates from attending the United Nations by delaying the issuance of visas. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have denied those accusations, insisting instead that countries often wait until the last minute to register applications.
In a July 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials reported that an Iranian official named Alireza Salari Sharifabadi had requested a visa to attend a conference on the global financial crisis the previous month. The U.S. rejected the request, but only a month after the event had occurred. U.S. "credibility is damaged when a visa is denied so long after the fact," the cable stated.
A State Department cable attributed to Susan E. Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., noted that U.S. officials defended the decision before the U.N.'s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA), saying that the visa "denial was made pursuant to the long-standing modus vivendi," a practice that has been used to bar foreign diplomats suspected of engaging in activities that could threaten U.S. national security. The U.N. generally "supports the modus vivendi and does not challenge us when we invoke it," the cable stated. But "OLA was surprised that a decision to deny the visa was made almost a month after the end of the meeting that the applicant sought to attend. As the department is aware, OLA considers visa denials and delays a serious problem."
When his diplomatic corps at the U.N. defected in February 2011, former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi encountered visa complications when he tried to dispatch a top diplomat to New York to regain control of his diplomatic outpost. The official, Abdulsalam Ali Treki, who had previously served as the president of the General Assembly, was unable to get his visa approved in time to attend a critical debate on a Security Council resolution that authorized military action against Qaddafi. Eventually, the Libyan diplomat also defected, ending the discussion.
Desperate, Qaddafi proposed sending a Nicaraguan diplomat, Miguel d'Escoto Brockman who was already in the United States on a tourist visa, to represent him. Libya's former foreign minister, Musa Kusa, claimed in a letter in March to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he was forced to take this extraordinary move "given the impossibility of [Treki taking] upon its duties as the representative of the Jamahiriya [Libya] for not being given an entrance visa to the United States of America."
But Rice questioned d'Escoto's right to take up the Libyan seat at the United Nations, noting that Kusa had defected shortly after putting d'Escoto's name forward and was no longer a member of the Libyan government. "The first question is whether he has actually been appointed in any legitimate fashion that anybody needs to consider at this stage," Rice told reporters.
Rice also noted that d'Escoto had arrived in the U.S. recently on a tourist visa. "A tourist visa does not allow you to represent any country, Nicaragua, Libya, or any other at the United Nations," she said. If he wished to serve as Libya's representative, she said, d'Escoto would have to leave the United States and apply for the appropriate visa. "If he purports to be or act like a representative of a foreign government on a tourist visa, he will soon find that his visa status will be reviewed."
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