Obama's nuclear dilemma

Greg Nash

The latest obstacle to President Obama’s plan for a nuclear deal with Iran is fast-moving legislation to bar Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from entering the United States. 

The House is taking up the bill, after the Senate overwhelmingly approved it Monday, and backers promise to send it to Obama in short order.

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That will set up a political quandary for the White House.

Vetoing the legislation seems politically unthinkable.

The measure’s sponsors include Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and it is meant to punish Tehran’s selection of Hamid Abutalebi as its U.N. envoy; Abutalebi has ties to the student group that held Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran for 444 days. The bill passed in a unanimous voice vote.

Yet, the controversy comes at a fragile time in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, a pillar of Obama’s second-term foreign policy.

The rejection of an Iranian diplomat could be interpreted not just as a slight, but evidence the United States is willing to renege on an international agreement due to domestic political pressure, something that could make it tougher to ink the deal.

It could also make life difficult for Obama with the U.N.

Diplomats to the United Nations have special rights that go beyond diplomats to Washington.

Prohibiting Abutalebi’s entry would violate a 1947 treaty that obligates the United States to grant entry visas to the representatives of U.N. member states, which was signed as part of the bid to attract the permanent headquarters to New York. It would be sure to draw protest from the international body.

“I think, clearly, the president will be in a very difficult spot,” said Brian Atwood, a professor at the University of Minnesota who served as assistant secretary of State for congressional relations during the hostage crisis.

The White House is hoping Iran simply withdraws the envoy’s name, something that would allow Obama to avoid action.

White House press secretary Jay Carney pointed out the Senate legislation on Tuesday and said the administration had informed Tehran the selection “is not viable.”

Carney would not explicitly say whether the president would sign the legislation, but the tough language suggested he would. Asked to clarify, Carney said that “not viable” was “diplomatic jargon” that could “mean what you want it to mean.”

Iran on Tuesday looked as if it would stand by its man.

“In our viewpoint, the ambassador who has been introduced is qualified for the position and has had important diplomatic posts in European countries and Australia, and has had a good, effective and positive performance during his past [diplomatic] missions,” Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told reporters, according to The Guardian. There are opponents of the deal in both countries who would like to see it stopped in its tracks, and who could use the fight over Abutalebi to meet that objective.

Jeff Laurenti, the former executive director of the United Nations Association of the United States, said rejecting the envoy would allow hard-liners in Tehran to argue the U.S. can’t be trusted to meet the terms of a nuclear deal.

“Cynics might say this is why some of the people in Congress who oppose the deal have pursued this legislation,” Laurenti said.

Although Cruz and Schumer have described Abutalebi, a close adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as a major co-conspirator in the embassy hostage plot, Abutalebi has downplayed his role. He claims he only served as a translator and negotiator on behalf of the group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, which occupied the embassy.

“Anybody Iran picks may come under a very close scrutiny because of the nuclear negotiations,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst for the Rand Corp. 

The Senate legislation, which would deny a visa to “any representative to the United Nations who has engaged in espionage activities against the United States, poses a threat to United States national security interests or has engaged in a terrorist activity against the United States,” would also open up other legal and diplomatic questions.

It’s not the first time the hostage crisis has caused a diplomatic flare-up over travel visas.

In 2005, Iran applied for a visa for then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was accused of participating in the embassy takeover. The Department of Homeland Security initially determined Ahmadinejad was ineligible to receive a visa, before the State Department overturned that decision months later. 

In 1988, the U.S. refused to provide Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a visa to speak at the General Assembly, prompting the U.N. to move its meeting to Geneva. 

The U.N. passed a resolution 154-2-1 denouncing the U.S. decision, with only the U.S., Israel and the United Kingdom not voting in favor. 

Congress also passed an anti-terrorism law in 1987 intended to bar the Palestine Liberation Organization from operating its offices at the United Nations. Then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani attempted to use the law to force the Palestinians to abandon their mission, but a federal judge ruled against the government, citing the U.N. Headquarters Agreement.