The U.S. has denied a visa to Hamid Aboutalebi, Iran's choice as ambassador to the United Nations, which is based in New York. Aboutalebi is an experienced diplomat, but his past involvement as a translator during the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is problematic. Iran has complained to the world body, and a special committee is set to review the issue next week. Bloomberg reporter Sangwon Yoon explains the diplomatic controversy and how it may play out.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Iranian diplomat Hamid Aboutalebi is not an acceptable representative to the United Nations, according to the U.S. government. Aboutalebi was formerly Iran's ambassador to Australia and to the European Union. But his involvement 35 years ago with the student group that took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran is causing him problems in the U.S., which hosts the United Nations.
Last Friday, Washington refused to grant Aboutalebi a visa. And now, Iran has lodged a formal complaint with the U.N. secretary-general's legal counsel. An emergency session of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country is scheduled for next week. Well, joining me now to talk about this is Sangwon Yoon, who is United Nations correspondent for Bloomberg News. Welcome to the program.
SANGWON YOON: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: What's actually known about this man's involvement in the takeover of the U.S. embassy back in 1979 when 52 Americans where held hostage for 444 days?
YOON: What we know is from his interview with Iranian media. And there, he's downplayed his involvement as having been driven by humanitarian motivations. He said he mainly served as translator during negotiations as the crisis was going on. And so far that is all we know. And the U.S. government hasn't been commenting on to what extent they know about his involvement.
SIEGEL: Is there a sense that Iran was aware that there would be a problem involved with his being named ambassador to the U.N. or that they've been taken by surprise by all this?
YOON: It is unclear. What we know so far is that Aboutalebi was a choice made specifically by President Hassan Rouhani. But it's unclear at this moment if they made the nomination knowing of this involvement in particular and whether that was a strategic choice or not.
SIEGEL: I gather that at least once in the past, according to the Iranian foreign ministry, Mr. Aboutalebi was given a visa to come to some event of the U.N. and the United States.
YOON: Yes. He visited the U.S. as part of a delegation in 1994. It's not known yet what the purpose of the visit was but there was a temporary admission into the U.S. for that visit.
SIEGEL: Now, to be clear here, this isn't a question about whether an Iranian diplomat is OK to represent his country to the United States. It's to represent his country at the U.N., which happens to be in the United States. Is the U.S. on strong legal ground to object his presence?
YOON: That's an interesting question. And some U.N. officials have expressed quite a lot of concern in what kind of precedent this could set for future countries sending their envoys to the U.N. It's, I think, a matter of what is more of a priority for the U.S. Is it their national security concerns and their domestic laws, or is it abiding by international agreements such as the agreement that it has with the U.N.?
Now, the headquarters agreement, which was signed in 1947 between the U.N. and the U.S., it states that the U.S. is obliged to grant required visas without charge and as promptly as possible, regardless of the relations that it may have with the said government and the U.S.
SIEGEL: If the committee on relations with the host country that is, in this case, with the U.S. says what we think he should be admitted, that doesn't necessarily trump U.S. decision, does it? I mean, the U.S. could still say no.
YOON: That's one of the challenges the United Nations faces, regardless of this issue because international law - a law is only effective when it's enforced. And there aren't any mechanisms that exist globally to make sure that countries abide by international agreements. And depending on what the committee rules or depending on what the U.N. legal office says, it's probably going to have to be limited or it's restricted to a point where they condemn or urge against the U.S. denial of the visa.
SIEGEL: And I guess Iran's last resort would be to accept failure and nominate somebody else?
YOON: It depends on how long they want to see the standoff continue. Now, some are saying that Aboutalebi, even at the end, if he does get a visa and does come to the U.N. to head the mission, in a way, he's, quote, unquote, "tainted" by this whole issue. And it's questionable as to how much diplomatic or political leverage he'll be able to wield once he gets to the U.N.
SIEGEL: Sangwon Yoon, thank you very much for talking with us today. That's Sangwon Yoon, who is United Nations correspondent for Bloomberg News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.