Iran’s choice for its next ambassador to the United Nations in New York surprised the administration of US President Barack Obama. The nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi, a high-profile Iranian diplomat and advisor to President Hassan Rouahni, has caused such controversy recently because of his involvement with the student group, the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, behind the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran, which American officials said made his nomination “not viable.”
That hostage crisis is still one of the most sensitive issues between the two countries. Iran has never apologized and relations between the US and the Islamic Republic have never been great, but through great effort in recent months the two sides have been able to break the ice and improve relations. The historic phone call between Obama and Rouhani last September, when Rouhani was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, was a great achievement for their two countries. Equally, the US acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium on a small scale as part of the P5+1 negotiations is a great achievement—one that could end the long-running standoff between the US and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program within only a few weeks.
But while Iran’s foreign minister, former UN ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, was busy last week with the Vienna nuclear talks aimed at securing a final agreement, this issue with the new UN ambassador provoked renewed tensions. Members of the US Congress were aggrieved by the choice because of the sensitivities that still surround the hostage-taking in 1979, especially in light of their ongoing concerns about President Obama’s decision to improve relations with Tehran.
While officials in Tehran adamantly defended Aboutalebi’s nomination, both the Senate and the House unanimously passed a bill that would ban officials from entering the United States if they were involved in spying or terrorist activities against the country. Of course, Obama still has to sign the bill—and it has arrived on his desk not long after he went head-to-head with Congress over their attempt to pass a new round of sanctions against Iran contrary to the interim nuclear deal reached last fall. President Obama had to threaten to use his veto on any such sanctions bill, even though its mere passage through the House and the Senate would jeopardize his diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.
In its role as host of the UN headquarters, the US is supposed to issue visas to anyone invited to or working at the UN. But there have been cases in the past where the US denied entry to groups or people trying to go to the United Nations—including to members of former Iranian delegations attending the General Assembly.
Although the ambassador has denied having any direct involvement in the hostage crisis, given the domestic political situation in America the decision to nominate Aboutalebi was unwise. Zarif has described the latest round of talks in Vienna as “important and critical”—so why did he risk provoking the United States with this nomination and why has he continued to defend it?
Was it really necessary for Iran to nominate a person with such a sensitive past, when it could hit another sore spot in Iran–US relations at such a sensitive time?
Since the US has said it will not permit Aboutalebi entry into the United States, Iran has the right to bring a complaint to the international court. But even if he is eventually allowed to go to New York, the new ambassador couldn’t possibly be in a position to fulfill his duties after all this media coverage.
Was this new ambassador worth all that fuss?