Making Iran’s UN Envoy a Wedge Issue

America’s neocons and their allies want an escalating confrontation with Iran, not a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. So they seek out hot buttons to anger Iran and make President Obama’s job harder, such as blocking Iran’s choice of UN ambassador, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The Obama administration has to perform a balancing act in handling the Iran account. On one hand it has the task, along with its diplomatic partners, of completing negotiations with Iran of an agreement to place unprecedented limits on the Iranian nuclear program to assure that it remains peaceful. Although the negotiators still have to iron out many details, this is actually the more straightforward part of the act.

The negotiations are on track, Iran is abiding by the terms of a preliminary agreement, and there is clear shape to a prospective agreement that would support nonproliferation goals as well as drawing down sanctions that have been damaging to the United States as well as to Iran.

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Hamid Aboutalebi.

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Hamid Aboutalebi.

The other part of the balancing act, which is the more troublesome part, is to deal with forces that are opposed to any agreement with Iran and are endeavoring to undermine the negotiation of one. These forces include most conspicuously the current government of Israel and its American supporters, who want to keep any Iranian competitor for influence permanently estranged and to keep the specter of an Iranian security threat around forever as a focus of attention.

They include American neoconservatives, who when they were giving us the Iraq War assigned Iran to the Axis of Evil and told the Iranians to “take a number.” They include political opponents of Barack Obama who reflexively oppose anything he favors and see a political incentive to sabotage what would be one of his most significant foreign policy achievements.

These elements overlap a lot and collectively do not constitute as large an opposition as this fractionated description might suggest. But anything they do under the label of opposing Iran is supported by the perceptual habits of a larger American public that has become accustomed to seeing Iran as nothing but an adversary to be confronted and opposed.

The administration has to manage these destructive forces, in a combination of parrying and propitiating, so as not to allow them to ruin the negotiations. This partly involves doing and saying certain things to display strength and resolution toward Iran, to refute accusations that the administration’s posture is one of weakness and to demonstrate that the agreement that emerges from the negotiations will be the best that could be obtained.

It also involves allowing people from time to time to let off some anti-Iranian steam. This applies not so much to those who are determined to sabotage a negotiated agreement anyway but rather to members of Congress who feel a need, given the political climate in which they have to operate, periodically to make confrontational gestures against Iran.

Thus the administration is prudent not to go to the mat over some gestures that, although they may be more directly unhelpful than helpful to the negotiations and may be promoted by those whose motives are ignoble, take steam and energy away from other possible measures that would be even more destructive.

We have seen this recently with some congressional letters that were a substitute for what would have been much more damaging sanctions legislation. We may be seeing it again with the denial of a visa to Iran’s newly designated ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, following Senate passage of legislation that would have had the same effect.

On the merits of the visa issue itself, the United States is acting wrongly. Denying the visa is a clear abrogation of the responsibilities of the United States as the host nation for the United Nations headquarters. No international organization could operate properly if the host nation were to behave in such a way for whatever rationale.

It is not true, as has been widely asserted, that there is a “security exception” permitting such a denial. The U.S. law implementing the U.N. headquarters agreement speaks of security considerations as a possible reason for limiting travel of duly designated national representatives to the U.N. headquarters district, not for denying access to the district itself. For the law to read otherwise would have made a mockery of the headquarters agreement that placed the United Nations at Turtle Bay in the first place.

In any case, it is hardly plausible that Aboutalebi, who is now a senior diplomat who has served as ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy, and the European Union, poses a security threat today.

If one looks beyond international legal obligations, there is room for arguing back and forth about denying a visa to Aboutalebi. If one were to take a stand in favor of reasonableness in policy toward Iran, this might not be the best place to take it. Although Aboutalebi has served as ambassador to other Western countries, it was the United States that was the victim of the hostage-taking in Tehran in 1979.

That was an inexcusable terrorist act. All those who participated in it share responsibility for it. That a particular individual played a lesser role than some others does not absolve the individual of all responsibility. Nor does the notion of youthful indiscretion hold water, as a matter either of personal integrity or of affecting the incentives of youthful would-be perpetrators of similar acts in the future.

Of course, the United States has hardly applied any such standard consistently in deciding whom to do business with. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir come immediately to mind (appropriately so, as former heads of Likud governments in Israel, given the origin of much of the current opposition to diplomacy with Iran) as two who were welcomed to the White House as foreign leaders despite having been up to their eyeballs in terrorism.

In their cases, it wasn’t just providing interpretation services to kidnappers but instead being leaders of terrorist gangs that killed many innocent British and others in the 1940s. U.S. inconsistency, however, does not necessarily excuse whatever is the most recent episode of inconsistent policy.

How exactly the Aboutalebi matter will affect the political and diplomatic dynamics between Tehran and Washington remains to be seen. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has his own destructive hardliners to deal with, and this newest demonstration of U.S. unwillingness to deal normally with the Iranian government complicates his task in the first instance.

But perhaps his government can partly turn the situation around, as it shows signs of doing already, by using it as an occasion to demonstrate its own ability to take a hard-nosed stance against the United States. We should hope that the U.S. and Iranian governments are finding a way to communicate and commiserate privately about how they both have to play this kind of game from time to time if they are ever to get to a more normal relationship.

The fundamental underlying observation to make in evaluating this affair is that the Obama administration’s most difficult Iran-related task right now is not finding the right formulations in writing an agreement with the Iranians. It is heading off the attempts to sabotage an agreement.

Looked at this way, the otherwise unsupportable denial of a visa might be a prudent way of reducing the chance of something even more damaging, and of increasing the chance of moving Iran in a direction that achieves the nuclear nonproliferation goal while making inconceivable anything like a replay of the 1979 hostage-taking. Maybe for that reason it makes some sense for the administration to go along in this instance with the anti-Iranian huffing and puffing of the likes of Ted Cruz and Charles Schumer.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Making Iran’s UN Envoy a Wedge Issue

  1. April 15, 2014 at 11:43

    I posted links to Papal Nuncio Bugnini’s peace efforts both from NY Times Obituaries and the Vatican website. It was held for moderation and I hope than accidentally deleted. Can documentation of a translators good work be restored?

  2. April 15, 2014 at 09:28

    Back up information on why Hamid Aboutaleb went to the American Embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis to aid Papal Nuncio Bugnini’s peace efforts, “Papal Nuncio Bugnini Dies; Figure in Iran Hostage Crisis”,
    Scrawl down to, After Consilium

    Then translator Hamid Aboutaleb should be apologized to, maybe one of the black American back up staff might point out that they appreciated being able to come home when he stayed for that purpose. Might the Vatican make a comment as well.

    • incontinent reader
      April 16, 2014 at 20:42

      Excellent points. Thanks for the clarification.

  3. April 15, 2014 at 02:24
    According to the NY Times, Aboutalebi first came to the ’embassy because the Vatican peace envoy needed a translator, Then the hostages wanted a translator for the News Conference where they were planning to release the women and black
    American hostages.

    He could have left instead and the women remain there until someone came along to translate their press conference.

    The hostage takers were rough and disorganized without any translators they would have just been pushing the American hostages around.

    Lawyers and translators and mediators are not the problem but the solution for dealing with problems with other than brute forces conclusions.

  4. jo6pac
    April 14, 2014 at 11:04

    Thank You

  5. F. G. Sanford
    April 14, 2014 at 09:08

    Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg got the electric chair, and for the same crimes, Netanyahu gets standing ovations in Congress. There appears to be no limit to American hypocrisy. In the long view of history, it is hard to deny that both the USA and Israel are collaborating to dig their own graves.

  6. incontinent reader
    April 14, 2014 at 07:16

    Excellent article. Glad you addressed the inappropriateness of the US denying a visa to Aboutalebi, especially where the diplomat would be representing Iran at the UN, not the as an Ambassador to the U.S. Re: your allusion to Begin and Shamir, there are even more current examples, namely Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who reportedly was central to the Israeli nuclear spying operation in the US and its theft of plans and materials (bomb triggers, plutonium etc.) necessary for Israel’s WMD program, and also President Peres, who was the Defense Minister responsible for setting up the WMD program. With Iran’s own non-existent WMD program today creating such an existential panic, how appropos it would be to exclude these Israeli officials from U.S. soil, and indeed exclude Israel itself from providing any input all to the process. After all, Israel not only secretly developed a secret nuclear weapons program, estimated to have 200-400 nuclear bombs, but which could have many more- and of much greater variety than estimated. Moreover, it developed its program, in part through the theft of nuclear designs and plans, nuclear equipment, and nuclear material- e.g. plutonium- from its ally, protector, and financial benefactor, the United States. And, it imprisoned, kept incommunicado, and tortured one of its, and the world’s, greatest and most forgotten heros and humanitarians, namely, Mordechai Vanunu, who blew the whistle on the program.)

    As for the hostage issue, I’m not certain I would go so far to brand everyone associated with the embassy takeover 35 years ago as a criminal today that should be excluded from civil society or any official position. Instead, I would offer that if Aboutelabi was a student used to translate documents, it would place him in a different category. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but, as revealed from shredded documents that were reconstructed by the hostage takers, the CIA through, or in conjunction with, the American embassy was very much involved with the Shah’s SAVAK and its police state repression of the Iranian people. So, the embassy’s role was by no means innocent, even if its takeover and the holding of hostages was a violation of international law. We are so cavalier and selective today over what violations are to be ignored and what are not- i.e., the “double standard”- that, ultimately, it must lead us to a place where there is no rule of law, only a rule of leverage or, more bluntly, power and the false perception of its legitimacy.

  7. joe steel
    April 14, 2014 at 03:03

    No excuse for the president who I voted twice. Neocon & Bibi won again. They don’t want peace and working hard to create world war 3. It’s really sad to see that president fall for it, well what do expect; Getmo is still open & follow up of supreme court choice of presidenncy.

  8. lumpentroll
    April 13, 2014 at 23:24

    Need a Big Belly Laugh?

    Speaking of US behaviour at the UN, this from Israel Shamir:

    The Russians enjoyed the sight of their UN representative Vitaly Churkin coping with a near-assault by Samantha Power. The Irish-born US rep came close to bodily attacking the elderly grey-headed Russian diplomat telling him that “Russia was defeated (presumably in 1991 – ISH) and should bear the consequences… Russia is blackmailing the US with its nuclear weapons,” while Churkin asked her to keep her hands off him and stop foaming at the mouth. This was not the first hostile encounter between these twain: a month ago, Samantha entertained a Pussy Riot duo, and Churkin said she should join the group and embark on a concert tour.

    Bwah hahaha!

  9. April 13, 2014 at 21:21

    Don’t give Obama a pass. He hired the neocons in his administration and appointed one of them as ambassador to the UN. Anyone associated with the Iran hostages was acting in the interest of Iran in reclaiming their country from the US puppet Shah and U. S. oil companies who overthrew the legitimate leader of Iran, Mossadegh and put the Shah back on the throne. Why is Iran being sanctioned when they don’t have any nuclear weapons and Israel gets a pass for their several hundred plus arsenal and the U. S. has not destroyed the ones they are committed to destroy. If anyone needs nuclear weapons to fend of nuclear armed predator states, it’s Iran. Obama has continued and expanded essentially all of the Bush initiatives in promoting world hegemony, destroying civil privacy protections, and spreading drone mayhem around the world, creating more terrorists by far than those destroyed. And now he’s trying to rekindle the cold war. It’s time to name names and stop this madness, not make excuses for a president who hires neocons. If Putin hadn’t stepped in we would be at war in Syria now, and not talking to Iran about their nuclear program. Listen to the American people, not the administration.

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