Papers, Please.

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."

Photo by AFP/Getty Images


Crude Business

The U.S. plan to curtail Iranian oil exports seems to be coming undone.

The Obama administration may be betting that sanctions on Iranian oil exports force the country to make concessions over its nuclear program. But Iran is now exporting more oil than at any time since mid-2012, raising doubts about how effective that sanctions strategy has been.

Iran's crude oil exports jumped to 1.65 million barrels per day in February, thanks to increased purchases by China, India, and South Korea, according to revised data released Friday by the International Energy Agency. That is well above the informal cap of about 1 million barrels per day set by the administration as part of the limited sanctions relief given to Tehran during the six-month interim deal to hold nuclear negotiations.

The IEA said that preliminary data showed that Iran's oil exports dropped to about 1 million barrels a day in March, "but that figure will likely be revised upwards closer to February levels upon receipt of more complete data." In other words, Iran's oil exports appear to have jumped and stayed consistently higher since the announcement late last year of the interim deal.

Iran's oil exports are a key source of government revenue; U.S. officials believe that Iran agreed to negotiate in large part because sanctions placed on its energy and financial sectors since 2012 had poleaxed Iran's economy. While Iran's economy is still in dire straits, the International Monetary Fund said this month that Iran could post modest economic growth between now and next year.

Critics of the limited sanctions relief offered to Iran as part of the interim deal say that the higher-than-expected oil exports are a shot in the arm for Tehran and, by shoring up Iran's economy, could further undermine the already troubled nuclear talks. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Wednesday that "a lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences" between the two sides, who will meet again next month in Vienna.

"This enhances Iranian nuclear negotiating leverage and makes it more difficult to conclude a diplomatic deal that dismantles Iran's military-nuclear program," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a group that advocates tougher sanctions on Iran. 

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday that the reported amounts of crude oil that Iran sold refers to volume over a six-month period, and that over time the amount will average out to 1 million barrels. "Month-to-month variability is normal in oil markets," Psaki said, "and we still expect and anticipate...that this will average out over a six-month period." 

Since 2012, the U.S. and Europe have sought to hamstring Iran's economy by limiting the amount of oil it can export. In general, the sanctions policy has been successful, pushing Iran's exports down from almost 2.5 million barrels per day to as low as 800,000 barrels a day last fall. As part of the interim nuclear deal --and in the teeth of heated opposition in Congress-- the U.S. halted further cuts to Iranian exports, but said that Iran could not sell additional volumes of oil while talks continue.

But the latest IEA figures show that China and India, in particular, continue to be large buyers of Iranian oil despite U.S. efforts to get both countries to curb their consumption. The IEA said that China likely imported about 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day in the first quarter of 2014, compared with about 430,000 barrels a day last year.

India's purchases of Iranian oil have also jumped sharply, despite both U.S. diplomatic arm-twisting and Indian pledges to curtail imports. The IEA said that India's first-quarter Iranian oil imports were about 340,000 barrels a day compared with just 190,000 barrels a day last year.

To be sure, exact figures on Iran's oil exports are hard to nail down exactly, and fluctuate from month to month. The IEA's own revisions each month to its estimates of Iranian oil exports underscore how tricky it is to paint an accurate picture of how much oil Iran is selling and to whom. One problem, the IEA says, is that many Iranian oil tankers don't carry electronic devices that could track their movements.

Obama administration officials say they don't put much stock on monthly estimates, and that they are focused on keeping Iran's exports of crude oil at an average level of about one million barrels per day during the six-month period of negotiations --which Iran appears to be exceeding.

Additionally, administration officials note that the IEA estimates of Iran's oil exports can present a slightly distorted picture. That's because the IEA tallies regular crude oil and lighter so-called condensates together in its oil figures; U.S. sanctions are only directed at regular crude oil. An administration official said in an interview last month that the United States is "comfortable" with the level of Iranian crude exports; an administration official reiterated that view today.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The latest apparent rebound in Iranian oil exports comes as Moscow is challenging the U.S.-led effort to maintain pressure on Iran. Since the beginning of this year, Russia and Iran have reportedly been in talks regarding an oil-for-goods barter deal that could bring Iran as much as $20 billion in exchange for about 500,000 barrels of oil per day.

Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, have repeatedly stressed that such a deal, if it were finalized, could trigger U.S. sanctions on Russia. This week, leading lawmakers, including Sens. Robert Menendez (D.-NJ) and Mark Kirk (D.-Ill.), the authors of key sanctions legislation, urged President Barack Obama to "put Iran on notice" if it tries to evade limits on energy sales.

Anton Siluanov, Russia's finance minister, rebuffed those warnings Friday, saying that Russia only acknowledges United Nations sanctions on Iran, not U.S. restrictions on Iran's oil exports.

This article has been updated.

Dieter Nagl - AFP - Getty