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Iran’s new U.N. ambassador: Will the U.S. take action?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013. Credit: U.N. Photo/Sarah Fretwell.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013. Credit: U.N. Photo/Sarah Fretwell.

As its next ambassador to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Iran has appointed a man who participated in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The decision has been met with outrage—and rightly so.

“Unconscionable,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has introduced legislation that would prevent a U.N. ambassador from entering the United States if that ambassador is a known terrorist. “A slap in the face,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “A disdain for the diplomatic process,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “A disgrace,” thundered Barry Rosen, one of the 52 American hostages held by Iranian captors for more than a year. “If the president and the Congress don’t condemn this act by the Islamic Republic, then our captivity and suffering for 444 days at the hands of Iran was for nothing,” Rosen continued. “He can never set foot on American soil.”

At the moment, the State Department has not yet decided whether to grant a visa to the appointee, Hamid Aboutalebi, who has served in the past as Iran’s ambassador to both Belgium and Italy. State did acknowledge, through spokeswoman Marie Harf, that Aboutalebi’s nomination was “extremely troubling” and cause for “serious concerns.” None of that means, however, that Aboutalebi will be prevented from taking up his post.

The Obama Administration is in a legal bind, insofar as it is bound by a 1947 protocol that grants almost total immunity to the diplomats of national missions serving at the U.N. As many New York residents will tell you, that’s the reason why, every year, our great city hosts the assorted dictators, tyrants, and terrorism sponsors who fly in for the U.N. General Assembly. In the decades since the U.N.’s establishment, we’ve put up with—among others—Muammar Gadhafi, the deceased Libyan dictator, Robert Mugabe, the mass-murderer who still presides over Zimbabwe, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president and notorious Holocaust denier. We do so because, as a civilized participant in the international community, we are compelled to take a deep breath and respect the very same principles of diplomacy that the Iranian regime violated so obscenely when it stormed our embassy in Tehran.

As the State Department’s lawyers deliberate over Aboutalebi’s visa application, hopefully they will bear two key points prominently in mind. Firstly, that former President Jimmy Carter, in his State of the Union address in 1980, categorized the hostage crisis as an act of “international terrorism.” Secondly, that Aboutalebi, by his own admission, was present at the embassy with other leaders of the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” the terrorist group behind the hostage taking.

If Aboutalebi was involved with intimidating or abusing the hostages, he isn’t owning up to it—though that doesn’t mean he didn’t participate in some of the outrages recorded over those 444 days of captivity. All he will admit, as he did in an interview with the Iranian website Khabaronline, is that he didn’t participate in the initial occupation of the embassy, but that he subsequently acted as a translator and negotiator for the terrorists. About as convincing a defense as saying, “I didn’t steal your car, but I did help to sell it afterwards.”

Regardless of what the State Department does over Aboutalebi’s visa application, this whole episode is a useful reminder that the Islamic Republic remains an enemy—not a negotiating partner with whom we have differences, but an outright enemy—of the U.S. The man who named Aboutalebi to the U.N. post is President Hassan Rouhani, someone who has so impressed the Obama Administration with his “moderation” and his commitment to the nuclear deal reached last November in Geneva that we’ve actually started lightening the sanctions load on Iran.

How, though, is that deal working out? Why, with the Aboutalebi appointment, is Iran risking the ire of the U.S. at this delicate stage in the negotiations? Well, the answer seems to be that there isn’t much to hope for. Despite new talks scheduled in Vienna for April 8, the mood is grim. “Mutual suspicion remains great and there is still a fundamental uncertainty as to what Iran really wants,” wrote BBCdiplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus in a precise assessment of the current situation.

Predictably, the sanctions relief that accompanied the November agreement has led the Iranians to behave like kids let loose in a toy store. Progress is rapidly being made on a deal with the Russians—who else?—over an oil-for-goods exchange that is worth around $20 billion. From the Iranian side, this would involve exports to Russia of around 500,000 barrels a day for two to three years.

Like the Aboutalebi visa application, news of the Russian-Iranian arrangement led to another American statement containing the phrase “serious concerns,” this time from the White House. Over and above such statements, if the U.S. doesn’t proactively attempt to block the deal, other countries will view that as a license to trade with Iran as if the sanctions regime didn’t exist.

That’s one reason why it’s tempting to believe that, these days, you get more out of being a rogue state than a law-abiding one.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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