Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s UN Envoy: Hopefully, the Rejection of Abutalebi Hasn’t Jeopardized the Nuclear Talks

The bill that US President Barack Obama signed into law on April 18th blocks any individual from entering the US, including a Member State’s appointee to the UN, who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.

According to an April 18, 2014 New York Times report entitled, “Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s Envoy,” US President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that prevents the granting of a US visa for Iranian diplomat Hamid Abutalebi.  The bill, itself, was unanimously passed by US House of Representatives and approved by the US Senate on April 10th.  The vote in Congress was supposed to send what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.  Iranian officials have said Abutalebi’s appointment was decided months ago, but it is still believed by US experts that hardliners in Iran urged Abutalebi’s appointment as Iran’s UN permanent representative to create controversy, snuff out reconciliation efforts, and halt the nuclear talks.  Compassion and sympathy should be felt toward the former embassy staff members who suffered during the hostage crisis.  Yet, while Iran might decide upon a candidate based on domestic political considerations, it is not useful for the US officials to reject an Iranian candidate based on domestic political considerations.  Given all that has been articulated so well by the Obama administration the possibilities that could come from newly established diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran, his decision to block the visa does not appear rise up to that same positive spirit.  Obama’s support for the Congressional legislation, that banned Abutalebi and dredged up the many visceral issues associated with the hostage crisis, makes the administration’s statements in support of building better ties seem more as mere lip service to the process rather than a genuine effort. 

What remains to be seen is whether a strong enough communion exists among US and Iranian officials that would allow them to overcome such stumbling blocks as a disputed appointment to the UN.  Unless Iran can use legal means and negotiations with the US to reverse the decision on Abutalebi, the ship has likely sailed on the issue of his appointment.  Before Obama signed the Congressional bill, an April 10th New York Times article informed that some US specialists on Iran said optimistically that despite the sharp language, they did not forsee the dispute over Abutalebi sabotaging the broader efforts at achieving a nuclear agreement.  Cynics, waging a “legislative war” against Iran, are unable to see the value of the improved relations and idealist are unable to discern the capability of provocative statements and acts to effectively derail the nuclear negotiation process. Yet, perhaps this might be a case when cynics and idealists alike in the US are unable to fully discern the situation before them.  In the end, to avoid war and to ensure greater confidence that what is happening both in Iran and the US is known, both cynics and idealists must oddly come together, along with pragmatists, to help establish a sustainable agreement satisfactory to all.  Such steps taken now will facilitate efforts to maintain the agreement by its future stewards.

The Concerns Over Abutalebi

This episode regarding Abutalebi is not the case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.  In Iran, the selection of Abutalebi to replace the current permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, Mohammad Khazee, hardly could have been made without input from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  It was undoubtedly tacitly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, when the selection of Abutalebi was made in Tehran, even if months ago, it had to be recognized then, as it is quite apparent now, that his selection would cause a strong response within official Washington, given his connection to the infamous capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. In the US, the decision to withhold a visa from Abutalebi gained impetus in the US Congress after legal representatives of the 52 embassy staff members of the captured US embassy in Tehran reported that he was among the revolutionaries, some of whom engaged in acts of mental and physical abuse against many of them during the 444-day hostage crisis.  Misgivings about Abutalebi rapidly built among Members of Congress and were manifested in a bill to prohibit him from entering the US.  Given the significant progress made in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program both in Geneva as well as back channel talks between US and Iranian officials, it was incumbent upon Obama to fully weigh blocking one Iranian diplomat, albeit with a problematic history, against paving a smooth course toward an historic agreement with Iran before placing his signature on it.

Abutalebi is a veteran diplomat who began working in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the early 1980s.  He has held key European postings in the past.  He served as Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Belgium, and Australia. Abutalebi is said to be connected to circles close to Rouhani as well as former President Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani.  In September 2013, Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani’s political affairs office.  He also headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council lead by Rafsanjani.  Abutalebi is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist.

Abutalebi stated that while he was a part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, the student group that occupied the US embassy in November 1979, he was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.  Nothing stated or reported indicates Abutalebi’s actions 35 years ago were of an egregious nature.  In fact, Abutalebi claims he was Ahvaz during the occupation of the US embassy.  It was only when he came back to Tehran that he was asked to help with some translation and he accepted to do it.  Abutalebi was quoted on the Iranian Khabaronline website as stating “I did the translation during news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released.”

Yet, Abutalebi’s explanation of his involvement in the embassy seizure was never relevant to US officials.  A spokesman and attorney from the legal team representing former hostages who have made compensation claims, Alan Madison, admitted that very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi’s role in the hostage-taking. Madison stated, “After 34 years, it’s difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it’s our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran.”  Madison also presented a statement from former hostage, Barry Rosen that explained, “It’s a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi’s Visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.”

The Abutalebi Case Shows US-Iran Relationship Requires Far More Work

Relations between the US and Iran remain far from perfect, however they are at a new stage as a result of the nuclear negotiations.  The talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of each other.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council. Indeed, progress has been made of the nuclear issue and sanctions.  Key Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with the most powerful revolutionary slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior US authority on diplomacy, admits that Iran has kept its end of a deal reached on November 24, 2013.  On February 24, 2014, Kerry stated Iran had reduced its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry explained that “They [the Iranians] are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

However, cynics ignore such truths.  The truth, itself, is seemingly viewed as treason for those against the change in relations between the US and Iran.  Despite progress, enough US and Iranian leaders have not moved forward at all in their thinking and they seem determined to have a negative impact on the negotiation process.  As the IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has stated, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.” In the US, it remains dogma among policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program.  The idea that nuclear talks may be the path for new, positive relations between the US and Iran, probably will not gain acceptance among cynics until a final agreement is achieved.  Even then, some will cling to doubts.

Given emnity that surfaced in both Tehran and Washington over the matter of Abutalebi’s selection as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, it is clear that hardliners in Tehran or Members of Congress persist in viewing policy goals and approaches giving primacy to information developed in the abstract long before the negotiations began.  A new understanding of each other’s ideas on issues and intentions should have been developed given the months of talks between the US and Iran.  If a more positive understanding of respective concepts and intentions is not reached soon, the failure of the direct talks will practically be ensured.  Moreover, with a limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking, cynics significantly lessen the possibilty of achieving their own policy goals.

The Way Forward

Despite what idealist may hope, how Obama handled this matter will determine what type of confidence he builds among leaders in Tehran.  Having stood with what Iranian officials see as the banality of Congress’ rejection of Abutalebi over his nearly indiscernible role in the US embassy seizure, Tehran may use the signing of the bill to gauge whether Obama would challenge Congress on other issues concerning US-Iran relations, to include the nuclear talks.  Although Obama cannot prevent Congress from passing sanctions or force Congress to remove them, he could greatly curtail or remove sanctions over the nuclear program under a final deal by waiving them until he leaves office if he chooses.  The Iranians probably recognized that was the most they could expect.  Now, even that outcome has been put into question.

At the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other senior officials, and even UN Member States most friendly with the US, would unlikely require or expect Iran to repeatedly present candidate after candidate until one would finally be found acceptable to the US.  Some of those friendly states have already accepted Abutalebi as an ambassador in their capitals.  The bill that Obama signed into law blocks any individual from entering the US who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.  From the information that has been presented about Abutalebi so far, it does not seem that by his mere presence in New York City as Iran’s UN permanent representative, he poses any threat to the US.  Interestingly, Abutalebi’s actions during the embassy takeover were undoubtedly far less egregious than that of some diplomats past and present from states whose forces have engaged in combat against the US military since World War II, including China (The Korean War 1950-1953), Vietnam (The Vietnam War 1964-1973), Cuba (Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury  1983), Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Montenegro (Operation Allied Force, 1999), or Iraq (The Gulf War 1991 and The Iraq War, 2003-2011).  Except in the case of Cuba, the US has normalized relations with those states.  There is plenty of literature available that explains known or detected members of the intelligence services in the UN Missions, embassies, or consulates of states such as Russia, China, or the North Korea are, more often than not, granted visas and not expelled from the US as persona non grata.  Perhaps it should be considered by Congress that if Abutalebi is kept from assuming his post as Iran’s UN permanent representative, perhaps out of spite and due to extraordinary pressure from hardliners, Tehran might just send a new appointee, a very capable government official outside of the Foreign Ministry, who may have a less obvious profile but later may be discovered to have committed acts against the US and interests.

Rather than just deciding on whether to accept or reject the Congressional bill on Abutalebi, Obama could have used the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  His personal involvement in US policy on Iran should always result in the injection of fresh thinking to the process to keep things moving forward.  The same should be expected of Rouhani.

The nuclear negotiations have meaning for present and future US-Iran relations.  Will and intellectual power is required to recognize the benefit of constructing a satisfactory and sustainable agreement.  True, a healthy dose of cynicism must exist in the process despite the best intentions.  However, the cynics must not be allowed to win the day.  For them, relations between the US and Iran appears to boil down into a competition over who has the upper hand in the relationship outside of the military sphere. Idealists would likely agree that a deal can be reached without the assistance of Iranian hardline political and religious leaders and the US Congress, yet it cannot be successfully concluded without their help.  Perhaps a focus could be placed on encouraging cynics on both sides.  As a result, they just might be helped to see, in a new way, the possibility of an agreement, and appreciate its value would be akin to that of a pearl of great price.

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