Iran UN Nominee a Non-Issue

by Robert E. Hunter

Even the most serious issues can have lighter — not to say ludicrous — moments. Such is the case of Ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi, the man whom the Iranian government designated as its Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. The US State Department objected (rightly) on the grounds that Aboutalebi played a role in the kidnapping of US diplomats in Tehran in 1979; the Iranians say that Aboutalebi served as a translator in a non-influential capacity. Congress got into the act and, in a rare moment of unanimity, passed legislation to deny a visa for the hapless Iranian diplomat. The administration followed suit, and thus, unless the US government changes its mind, Aboutalebi won’t be coming to New York.

Iran has complained (rightly) that the United States is violating its responsibilities as host to UN headquarters under Section 11 of the United States Headquarters Agreement. Of course, by holding 52 US diplomats hostage for 444 days, the Islamic Republic had itself violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which regulates the behavior of nations in regard to foreign diplomats.

Diplomats accredited to the UN have the right to come and go freely, though for some — like those from Iran — only within a 25-mile radius of UN headquarters, while the US diplomats in Tehran had the right to go about their legitimate business (Vienna Convention Article 26); and Iranians had no right to enter the US embassy without permission (Articles 22, 24, and 29 inter alia).

Thus did the two countries, in unspoken conspiracy, become part of a comedy turn worthy of Marx — not Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but Karl — who wrote that “…great historic facts and personages recur twice….Once as tragedy, and again as farce,” a reference to Louis Napoleon’s 1851 assumption of power in France.

Neither the United States nor Iran need this interplay amidst the very serious efforts to defuse the long-standing imbroglio, not to say crisis, over Iran’s nuclear program. By trying to send to the UN someone who had been complicit in the hostage-taking, Iran’s leadership may have been responding to domestic political pressures; but at best, this reflected poor judgment. Yet it is also fair to judge that this “tempest in a Persian tea glass” will not derail the talks that have been taking place between Iran and the so-called P5+1 states (the US, UK, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany).

Indeed, the outcome of this incident serves to highlight that the talks now have a better-than-even chance of reaching an agreement that will make it more difficult for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, should it — despite its denials — choose to do so, along with its benefiting from eased (if not eliminated) economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. (This week the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran has cut its most sensitive nuclear stockpile by nearly 75 percent in accordance with the 6-month timeline set by the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which was reached in Geneva on November 24, 2013.)

Unless something goes wrong — a regular occurrence in the Middle East — there will ultimately be some sort of agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, even if not by the deadline agreed to late last year. Thus, as it’s already becoming clear, the chances of a US military attack on Iran, save for the latter’s initiating hostilities against Israel or some other country, have sunk virtually to zero, as President Barack Obama has fervently hoped.

This is good news, or at least the spring’s second swallow, the first being last November’s conclusion of the JPA. And the matter of Iran’s effort to send to the UN a man complicit in the 1979-80 hostage-taking would almost surely be forgotten as soon as/if the JPA evolves into a final settlement of the nuclear issue.

Still, what has been happening also illustrates that negotiations on the Iranian nuclear problem are only one element in a much broader set of concerns. These concerns include allegations that Iran continues to support terrorism in other countries (e.g., through Hezbollah); that it is not aiding efforts to stabilize Iraq; and that — by its very nature as a modernizing, Shia country, situated so close to rich but less-modernizing Arab states of the Persian Gulf — it will almost certainly be a major contender for regional predominance, beginning with economics and spreading to political and cultural influence. Hence Obama’s recent brief visit to Saudi Arabia to reassure its leadership of US fealty in trying to contain any such Iranian ambitions.

If the nuclear talks do succeed, however, no one should be under any illusions that Iran will sit on the sidelines in the Persian Gulf region or that its potential “business” with the West will be a long time in developing. Western firms are already lining up to enter Iranian markets; a return of partially-embargoed Iranian hydrocarbons to global markets will help, over time, to reduce prices and limit Russian oil and particularly gas leverage in Europe; and the United States will have a natural interest in seeking Iranian support to help stabilize Afghanistan — just as the Iranian government was instrumental in overthrowing the Taliban in 2001.

Thus we are already hearing rumblings of a major regional earthquake, but one with different effects in different places. Countries that have banked on Iran’s exclusion from competitions for regional influence (and for influence in Washington) will be discomfited. These will include Israel, even as a potential “existential threat” from a putative Iranian nuclear weapon would be — let us hope – reduced or eliminated once we have a final deal. One the other hand, if this political earthquake does happen, it will be a blessing for Europe and especially for the United States, and then Iran could choose whomever it wants to represent it at the UN without complaint.

Photo: The Iranian flag is seen at the center of this photograph of the UN headquarters in New York city.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. I continue to view the opposition in the US to Iran’s nominee as ambasador to the UN, as pathetic.

  2. Hunter omits at least two disturbing elements:
    1) The bill (S.2195) itself states: “To deny admission to the United States to any representative to the United Nations who has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities or a terrorist activity
    against the United States and poses a threat to United States national security interests”. Legally, the word “and” requires that the US prove the person denied admission represents a current threat to US security. With Abouletabi’s minimal involvement in the hostage events and subsequent background as foreign Minister to several countries, there is no legal grounds even if one accepts S.2195, which already is at odds with the US agreements to the UN. So the US, by denying the visa, is claiming “exceptional powers” both in respect to its own laws and to its international signed agreements. One disturbing conclusion: how can the US be trusted to abide by any nuclear agreements it makes if once again a hysterical congress, say, in response to some unrelated action taken by Iran, votes to abrogate the agreement?
    2) The hostage crisis is the ultimate weapon of those who don’t want to see an agreement with Iran: it was a massively publicized humiliation to the US, and we have never gotten sufficient “revenge” to slake the anger that Americans still feel from those years. The visa refusal is a way of getting back. Unfortunately, this move also reflects most Americans’ total ignorance of the background for the siege of the US embassy and hostage taking — namely, that the embassy was the very site where the 1953 coup overthrowing Mossadegh was planned, the US was taking in the Shah (similar to the Shah’s temporary disappearance from Iran after the first coup attempt failed), and there was every reason to believe in 1979 that the US would back another coup, if it could. Grilling the hostages and seizing documents for possible connection to a coup was not paranoia, since the 1953 coup led to 26 years of a brutal dictatorship supported by the US. Once again, our ignorance about Iran makes us prey to forces that, for domestic and international political reasons, want to see negotiations fail.

  3. Great post. And again, how pathetic on the part of the US Congress! Childish, stupid, etc etc etc etc.

  4. No discussion of the Iran hostage crisis is complete without mentioning how much the Iranians hated Jimmy Carter. They really, really, really hated him.

    While the Shah’s secret police were running amuck and throwing everybody in jail, Jimmy Carter went to Iran in 1977. They had a fancy state banquet in downtown Tehran only a few blocks away from one of the Shah’s torture chambers. Carter stood up and made a speech saying what a great guy the Shah was and how much his people respected him.

    Nobody was more overjoyed when Ronald Reagan beat Carter in the November 1980 elections than Iran. To show their gratitude and as a gesture of goodwill, the Iranians released the hostages in time for Reagan’s inauguration.

  5. Iran may have retained the hostages to ensure defeat of Carter (secret deal with Republicans).

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