Congress votes to bar Iran’s new UN envoy from US

Decision on whether to block new ambassador from entering country won’t impact nuke talks, White House official says

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Iran's newly appointed UN ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi (screen capture: YouTube)
Iran's newly appointed UN ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi (screen capture: YouTube)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan initiative to ban entry to the United States for Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations crossed its final Congressional hurdle late Thursday morning, placing the ball in President Barack Obama’s court to either veto or approve the legislation.

Last month, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani named Hamid Aboutalebi to serve as Tehran’s envoy to the UN, where he would serve at the organization’s New York headquarters. Although the United States, as a host nation for the UN, traditionally allows unrestricted access to UN emissaries, protests arose against the granting of an entry visa to Aboutalebi.

US legislators on both sides of the aisle accused Aboutalebi of being an active participant in the group that held 52 Americans hostage in Iran from 1979-1981. Currently the head of Rouhani’s political affairs bureau, Aboutalebi has insisted he was not part of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy, an event recently commemorated in the film Argo. He has not, however, denied his involvement altogether, claiming instead to have worked as a translator for the students who led the takeover and ensuing hostage crisis.

Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would ban terrorists from entering the US to serve as UN ambassadors. On Thursday, the House of Representatives unanimously approved Cruz’s measure before adjourning for recess, speeding up the process to approve a similar bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO).

The bill, which is an amendment to the existing Foreign Relations Authorizations Act, enables the US administration to withhold visas for people who “engaged in a terrorist activity against the United States.”

The move is not without precedent. Last year, the US dragged its heels on the visa application by Sudan’s president, alleged war criminal Omar al-Bashir, who hoped to address the UN General Assembly. In the past, however, the US has allowed entry to attend the UN for highly controversial leaders including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also an alleged participant in the embassy takeover.

“Congress has voted unanimously in support of a bill to reject Iran’s deliberately insulting nomination of a known terrorist – one of the 1979 hostage-takers – to be their ambassador to the United Nations,” Cruz wrote in a statement shortly after the House decision. “I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for supporting it, and urge the President to act quickly. We, as a country, can send an unequivocal message to rogue nations like Iran that the United States will not tolerate this kind of provocative and hostile behavior.”

Both sponsors called upon the president to quickly approve the legislation, in order to block Aboutalebi from gaining a visa.

The bill, Lamborn said “will give the president the power to prevent an Iranian terrorist from entering our country with diplomatic immunity.”

“It is great to see Congress send a strong, bipartisan message that Iranian evildoers will be treated like terrorists, not tourists,” he added. “Terrorists, from Iran or elsewhere, should not be allowed to walk the streets of Manhattan with diplomatic immunity.”

After the legislation was passed by unanimous consent, all eyes were on the White House to see whether Obama was willing to sign on to the law, which would effectively nullify Iran’s ability to select Aboutalebi as the next ambassador to the UN.

“Accepting Mr. Aboutalebi’s nomination to this post would be a tacit endorsement of his past terrorist activity, which should disqualify him from entering the United States and the privileges of diplomatic immunity granted to foreign dignitaries,” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) said shortly after the legislation passed. “I’m pleased with the strong showing of bipartisan support for this legislation, which I urge the President to sign without delay.”

A statement from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC congratulated Congress on passing the measure and called on the White House to sign it into law.

White House Spokesman Jay Carney has previously described Abdoutalebi’s appointment as “not viable,” but avoided committing to signing 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 said, but added that “in terms of legislation, I just don’t have a view on it in terms of the President at this time.”

Although Iran has already attacked the White House’s statements on Aboutalebi, Carney said that he did not anticipate that the tiff over the nomination would have a direct impact on the ongoing P5+1 talks about Iran’s nuclear program.

“The talks continue; they continue to be workmanlike and productive,” he said. “And we’ve seen no impact on those discussions from some of these other issues.”

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