By Justin Sink - 04/02/14 02:56 PM EDT
The State Department on Wednesday said that Iran's selection of a participant in the 1979 hostage crisis to become its next ambassador to the United Nations was "extremely troubling," but insisted the nomination would not derail negotiations over Tehran's nuclear weapons program.
The Iranian government has applied for a visa for Hamid Aboutalebi, a member of a student group that abducted U.S. personnel attached to the embassy in Tehran, triggering a 444-day standoff.
Lawmakers have decried his nomination as an insult and called on the State Department to deny his visa to travel to the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“This is a slap in the face to the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days and an affront to all Americans," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement Wednesday.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter demanding that the U.S. refuse entry to Aboutalebi.
“Hamid Aboutalebi was a major conspirator in the Iranian hostage crisis and has no business serving as Iran’s ambassador to the UN,” Schumer told the New York Post.
“This man has no place in the diplomatic process, and the State Department should flat-out deny his visa application. Iran’s attempt to appoint Mr. Aboutalebi is a slap in the face to the Americans that were abducted, and their families; it reveals a disdain for the diplomatic process and we should push back in kind.”
Harf said the State Department sympathized with those insulted by the nomination.
"Many of those hostages, you know, were State Department people," she said. "And we very much value their service, and we'll keep having that conversation."
But she stopped short of echoing Schumer's characterization of the move as a "slap in the face" and insisted the move would not affect negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program.
"I'm not going to describe it that way," Harf said. "Obviously, it's troubling. We'll talk about this with the Iranians. But the nuclear negotiations are separate."
She argued that the U.S. had serious problems with Iranian behavior in a number of realms, including the war in Syria, state-sponsored terrorism and human rights. But, she said, the nuclear issue was "incredibly important" to resolve and viewed as separate from those issues.
"We can only judge them by their actions," Harf said. "On the nuclear issue, they have upheld their commitments. We hope they will continue to."