Widely considered a moderate diplomat, Aboutalebi, Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium, Australia, and the European Union is closely aligned with the politics of President Hassan Rouhani himself. The nominated ambassador was meant to serve as Rouhani’s ears and eyes in the United States, part of a wider effort on behalf of the Iranian government to defrost the icy relationship between the two countries, following decades of hostility and distrust.
Despite being a seasoned diplomat, Aboutalebi’s alleged involvement in the 1970′s siege of the US embassy in Tehran makes the nomination ”not viable,” in the words of US government officials, who have denied Aboutalebi the visa necessary for him to serve in his post as Iran’s representative at the UN in New York.
On April 12, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters that Tehran will not seek a replacement for Hamid Aboutalebi, promising that Hassan Rouhani’s administration will follow-up on this issue “through diplomatic channels.”
On April 13, the headline in Javan newspaper, the media branch of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, stated “the government should stand up for the dignity of Aboutalebi’s passport,” connecting the visa denial to broader problems faced by those with Iranian nationality in the international community.
A source close to Rouhani’s inner circle told me that, “Iran should immediately appoint another diplomat for the job. No matter the actual role Aboutalebi might have played in the hostage taking crisis, after the media backlash, it is near impossible for the Obama administration to grant him a visa to enter the US.”
However, under criticism from Iranian hardliners, the Rouhani government has opted to press for Aboutalebi’s rights as a diplomat. In doing so, Tehran is choosing to prologue the controversy rather than appoint someone else to the post, precisely as Iran and the 5+1 countries continue negotiations on nuclear energy and outline a comprehensive agreement with Europe.
Aboutalebi himself has refrained from commenting on the situation. But, Abbas Asgharzadeh, one of the leading members of the student group in charge of the 1979 hostage taking, now a former MP and well-known political figure in Tehran, told me in an interview that Aboutalebi “had no decision-making role in the hostage operation,” claiming that his involvement was “limited to side jobs, such as translation.”
Whatever the extent of his involvement, US officials are justifiably infuriated by the choice to defend Aboutalebi who was, in some fashion, implicated in the 1979 hostage crisis.
Despite the traumatic imprint of the 444-day long incident in the American psyche, an extremist political climate in Iran has meant that there has been no shift with regards to public perception of the hostage taking. The political elite, made up of revolutionaries and hardliners, still have no sense of regret for what happened in ’79, and continue to celebrate the anniversary each year, as a moment of historic national heroism. Asgharzadeh claimed in an interview I did for BBC Persian that “sympathizing with hostages and or apologizing for what happened, would cause his removal from Iran’s political scene, for ever.” Given the rise in power for conservatives in Iran no one dares extend themselves in vying for more stable relations with the US.
Like Asgharzadeh, many of the students who organized the hostage taking, grew to be critical of the Islamic Republic over the following decades, however, most have since been politically marginalized or imprisoned.
It is fair to say that if there is a faction within contemporary Iranian politics that offers hope for the political re-positioning of Iran as a reliable partner within the international community, it is composed of reformists and moderates — many of whom were admittedly involved in the hostage taking in their mid-twenties.
In fact, they are the ones who currently argue for stabilizing the relationship between the US and Iran, welcoming any initiative that can help the country move past the ongoing consequences of this consistent thorn in US-Iranian relations.
Iranian politicians should understand that as the appointment of Aboutalebi has served to resurface the story of the hostage crisis — one of the most bizarre and inhumane incidents in the history of diplomatic relationships between the two countries — it has become practically impossible for the Obama administration to grant him the visa necessary to enter the country as Iran’s ambassador to the UN.
Additionally, with Democrats focused on imminent mid-term elections they are reluctant to take on another politically polarizing battle. Though the decision may be technically illegal, according to the US’s ongoing obligation to provide visas for UN diplomats per the 1947 agreement, it is an understandable decision given the current political climate.
Despite the validity in Tehran’s protests against Aboutalebi’s visa denial, it is clear at this stage that they should back down and appoint a new diplomat for the UN position in New York.
Iran’s president Rouhani should beware not to let this appointment serve as an unintended distraction to the challenges presently facing Iran. The president should avoid letting ascending tensions jeopardize ongoing nuclear negotiations, which present a significant step in mending US-Iranian relations over the course of the next months.
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