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IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

U.N. Non-Committal over U.S. Visa Refusal to Iranian Envoy

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) greets Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prior to a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on Sep. 27, 2013. Beside Mr. Rouhani is Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 8 2014 (IPS) - When New York City was picked as the location for the United Nations many moons ago, the politically-important decision was followed by the 1947 U.S.-U.N. Headquarters Agreement which obligated Washington to facilitate – not hinder – the smooth functioning of the world body.

But over the years, there have been clear violations of this agreement, as evidenced in the refusal of a visa to Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat to address the U.N. General Assembly back in 1988, and the current mass cancellations of bank accounts of over 70 U.N. missions and their diplomatic staff in New York.

"Iran is a founding member of the U.N. - regardless of political inclination." -- former ASG Samir Sanbar

And on Monday the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to urge the administration of President Barack Obama to refuse a visa to Iran’s newly appointed U.N. ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, on the grounds he was involved in the 1979 forcible takeover of the U.S. embassy and its diplomatic personnel in Tehran.

The ambassador-in-waiting says he was only a translator and negotiator between the hostages and the hostage takers – and that he was not even in Tehran when the embassy was physically taken over by a group called the Muslim Students.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is currently visiting Africa, has implicitly refused to weigh in on the dispute, judging by the sentiments expressed by his deputy spokesperson.

Asked for a response, U.N. Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS it is essentially a bilateral dispute between the United States and Iran.

“Let’s see what develops and if we need to pronounce ourselves on that somewhere down the line, we’d look at what we need to say,” he said last week.

“I don’t think we are going to get ahead of the game and try to speculate what might happen based on current circumstances,” Haq added.

Asked whether the United States, as host country, can block any U.N. envoys taking office, he told reporters Tuesday he has no comments since it is being handled bilaterally.

Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general (ASG) who served in various capacities under five different secretaries-general, told IPS the Iranian case reflects confusion between bilateral politics and international diplomacy.

“While relations between two member states are subject mainly to dual reciprocal relations, membership of the international community would have wider inclusive guidelines including, for example, the 1947 U.N. Headquarters Agreement with the host country,” he added.

“With all due support for the Palestinian cause, a basic difference between Chairman Arafat’s visa-refusal is that while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had the status of an Observer, Iran is a founding member of the U.N. – regardless of political inclination,” said Sanbar, a former head of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information.

Just after the Senate vote, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was quoted as saying that Washington had raised “serious concerns” with Iran about the envoy’s appointment.

She added, “But we do take our obligations as host nation for the United Nations very seriously.”

Asked if any ambassadors accredited to the United Nations had been refused visas, Haq told reporters that was a fairly long historical question.

“I think the U.N. Library has a lot of the resources that you need in terms of something that goes back through the entire history of the United Nations,” he said.

It would be difficult to find at this stage, he said, adding, “What I can tell you is there have been times when there have been differing problems about credentials, which have been resolved in different ways, but each case is basically unique.”

In his address to the 1988 General Assembly session in Geneva, perhaps the only one of its kind, Arafat took a swipe at Washington when he prefaced his statement by saying “it never occurred to me that my second meeting with this honourable Assembly, since 1974, would take place in the hospitable city of Geneva”.

That visa refusal took place under the administration of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

Last month, an African ambassador who had his bank accounts arbitrarily cancelled told delegates it is time to seriously consider relocating the U.N. headquarters away from the United States because of the increasingly unfriendly environment to U.N. diplomats in New York City.

Sanbar told IPS when the General Assembly temporarily moved to Geneva to hear Arafat, the most senior U.S./U.N.Secretariat official at the time, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs Ambassador Joseph Vernon Reed, who was politically a Republican like President Reagan, took a position of principled courage by going to oversee the politically-charged meeting.

He also said it will be interesting to note the stand taken by the current Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador in Lebanon and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs who, as a U.N. official had already visited Tehran twice.

“By nature of its work, the U.N. is an Organisation of Peace. Any step towards reconciliation will be better than attempts at confrontation,” he said.

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