News / Middle East

Shades of 1979: US Disputing Iran's Choice for UN Ambassador

Ken Bredemeier
There is a new conflict between the United States and Iran, and its origins extend back to 1979 when a group of militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.  Now, Iran is looking to name a man with a connection to the hostage-taking to be its ambassador to the United Nations, but American officials are seeking to block his entry into the country.  

Iran wants Hamid Aboutalebi to be its new ambassador to the United Nations in New York.  He has served Tehran at diplomatic postings in Australia, Belgium and Italy, but his prospective appointment as Tehran's U.N. envoy is drawing a sharp rebuke from the U.S. government.

American officials view his appointment as an affront, saying he should not be allowed to enter the United States because of his alleged involvement in the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in late 1979, when 52 diplomats were held hostage until early 1981.

Former hostage Barry Rosen:

"The attempted appointment by, I would think Ayatollah Rouhani, is an absolute outrage at a very sensitive moment in the history between Iran and the United States in negotiating the issue of nuclear enrichment.  The Islamic republic has the audacity to appoint a former hostage taker, the man who was part and parcel of the hostage-taking to be its U.N. ambassador.  It is an absolute affront to the United States and to any country that believes in democracy and freedom," said Rosen.

Rosen is now 70-years-old and working as a community college spokesman in New York.  He says he does not remember Aboutalebi, but says in a VOA interview that Iran's attempt to name him to the U.N. post is effectively trying to "legitimize" the embassy takeover 35 years ago.

For his part, Aboutalebi told a conservative Iranian web site that he was not involved in the hostage-taking.  But he said that "once or twice" he acted as a French or English translator when the hostage-takers wanted to send a message to the outside world during the prolonged embassy takeover.

Under most circumstances, the United States is obligated to grant visas to foreign envoys traveling to New York to represent their countries at the United Nations.  Another of the one-time hostages, John Limbert, says that while that is usually the case, the United States appears ready to take a stand against Aboutalebi.

"Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand times we do.  But there have been exceptions in the past, and in this case we are obviously ready to make an exception," said Limbert.

The U.S. Senate this week unanimously passed legislation to bar Aboutalebi from entering the United States to serve at the U.N.  The U.S. House of Representatives could soon consider the measure.

Senator Ted Cruz said there is no way Aboutalebi should be allowed to enter the U.S.

"There are no circumstances in which the United States should grant such a person a visa, and our immediate concern is to prevent Mr. Aboutalebi from ever setting foot on American soil," said Cruz.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States has told Iran its hope to send Aboutalebi to the United Nations is "not viable," but declined to say whether it would bar him from entering the country.

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