US President Barack Obama has signed legislation aimed at blocking Iran’s chosen ambassador to the UN because of his ties to the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but says he is only treating the legislation as guidance.
The unusual legislation bars anyone from entering the US as a UN representative if they have engaged in espionage or terrorist activities and pose a threat to national security. It is aimed at blocking Hamid Aboutalebi, a member of the Muslim student group that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days during the embassy takeover.
Aboutalebi has said that his involvement in the group was limited to translation and negotiation. Iran has accused the US of setting a dangerous precedent by violating the right of sovereign states to designate representatives to the UN.
The sensitive dispute comes amid efforts between Washington and Tehran to thaw relations over Iran’s nuclear program.
The Obama administration has said that Aboutalebi was an unacceptable choice and refused to grant him a visa. Yet the White House had been noncommittal about whether Obama would sign the legislation that the US Congress passed earlier this month.
The White House’s announcement on Friday that Obama privately signed the legislation was accompanied by what is known as a signing statement. US Presidents occasionally issue signing statements to assert that they see part of a legislation as unconstitutional and therefore they intend to ignore it or implement it in a way they see fit.
“Acts of espionage and terrorism against the United States and our allies are unquestionably problems of the utmost gravity, and I share the Congress’ concern that individuals who have engaged in such activity may use the cover of diplomacy to gain access to our nation,” Obama said in the statement, but added that he will treat the legislation as advisory out of concern it could interfere with his discretion to receive ambassadors.
Iran can either nominate a different ambassador or have Aboutalebi occupy the post from overseas.
The US frequently allows visas for representatives from countries it disfavors, but restricts their diplomats’ movements and activities to a 40km radius of New York City.
Iranian UN Mission spokesman Hamid Babaei said Theran had sent a delegation to meet with the UN’s office of Legal Affairs on Tuesday, after filing a letter of complaint to the international body and the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Relations with the Host Country.
Iran’s letter said Washington was breaching its obligations under the US-UN Host Country Agreement to allow access to diplomats and UN guest speakers.
Denying visas to UN ambassadorial nominees or foreign heads of state who want to attend UN events is extremely rare.
US Senator Chuck Schumer, a chief supporter of the legislation, said Obama did the right thing.
“This bill sends a loud and clear message to Iran, and to all others, that the United States will not allow people who harm Americans to come here and operate with diplomatic immunity,” Schumer said.
On the day of Obama’s announcement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani underscored his moderate policies and outreach to the West in a speech at a military parade on Iran’s National Army Day.
Referring to the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 group — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — Rouhani said Iran has shown it has no hostile intentions toward anyone in the world, including the US.