The US Congress sent US President Barack Obama legislation on Thursday aimed at denying a visa to Iran’s newly appointed UN ambassador over his alleged links to the 1979 US hostage crisis.
Furious over the prospect of allowing Tehran’s envoy on US soil, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill after the US Senate did the same on Monday.
While the White House has already signaled that a visa for Iran’s appointed UN envoy Hamid Aboutalebi was “not viable,” White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to say whether the president would sign the legislation.
“We’ve made clear and have communicated to the Iranians that the selection they’ve put forward is not viable, and we’re continuing to make that understood,” Carney told reporters.
Iran has slammed the White House decision as “unacceptable.”
The clash over the appointment threatens to complicate a key moment in an easing of relations between Washington and Tehran as both sides strive to conclude a deal on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
The hostage crisis proved to be a critical point in US-Iran relations, leading Washington to sever its diplomatic ties with Tehran.
Aboutalebi, a veteran diplomat who currently heads Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s political affairs bureau, has insisted he was not part of the hostage-taking in November 1979, when a Muslim student group seized the US embassy after the overthrow of the pro-Western shah.
He has acknowledged he served a limited role as a translator for the students, who took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
However, several US lawmakers including Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and House Republican Doug Lamborn branded Aboutalebi a terrorist.
The bill ensures “that we do not have an Iranian terrorist walking the streets of New York city and having diplomatic immunity,” Lamborn, a sponsor of the legislation, told his House colleagues.
As the host government, the US generally is obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at the UN.
It is believed that Washington has never denied a visa for a UN ambassador, although Tehran withdrew its nominee once in the early 1990s.
Washington could decide to sit on Aboutalebi’s visa application, as it did last year in the case of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an accused war criminal, who sought to address the UN General Assembly.
The US State Department would not be drawn on how they would seek to resolve the Aboutalebi impasse.
“Our preference certainly would have been that he wouldn’t have been nominated to begin with,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We’ve made our concerns clear, and they are going to make whatever choice they’ll make.”
The latest US bill amends a section of the existing US Foreign Relations Authorizations Act to allow Washington to withhold visas for individuals who have “engaged in a terrorist activity against the United States.”
The US and Iran still do not have diplomatic relations, but Rouhani and Obama have taken steps to ease tensions through a tentative agreement to freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program.