Obama Administration Raises ‘Serious Concerns’ Over Iran’s U.N. Ambassador-Nominee

By Patrick Goodenough | April 7, 2014 | 4:29 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the E.U.’s Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other participants hold talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on November 9, 2013. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – A senior Obama administration official won’t say if Iran appointment of a controversial nominee to serve as U.N. ambassador will have any impact on a new round of talks between Iran and six world powers.

The official, briefing reporters on background by teleconference on the talks in Vienna, called reports on the nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi to represent Iran at the U.N. in New York “extremely troubling.” Aboutalebi is linked to the 1979 American hostage crisis.

The official said the U.S. had “raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran through a variety of channels that we use to convey our concerns,” but would not give a direct reply when asked again whether the incident would have an impact on the nuclear talks.

“All I can say at this time regarding this is that if this possible nomination were the nomination, it would be extremely troubling, and we have raised those concerns with the Iranians,” the official repeated.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will, as usual, head the U.S. negotiating team at the talks between Iran and the “P5+1” group – U.N. Security Council permanent members the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany.

It is the third round of the talks since an interim deal was reached last November, granting Iran some sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program. Their aim is to reach a comprehensive agreement to replace the six-month interim one.

President Hasan Rouhani’s nomination of Aboutalebi, who has been linked to the holding of 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in 1979-1981, has triggered protests from former hostages, lawmakers and other, along with calls for the State Department to deny him a visa.

“His appointment to such a high profile diplomatic post is a slap in the face of the Obama Administration, which is bending over backwards in an effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran,” Heritage Foundation senior research fellow James Phillips wrote at the weekend.

“The appointment raises even more doubts about the Rouhani regime’s qualifications as a trustworthy negotiating partner. How can a regime that continues to celebrate the illegal seizure of an embassy – a terrorist act that violated Iran’s diplomatic obligations – be trusted in a nuclear deal?”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has introduced legislation aimed at preventing “known terrorists” from entering the U.S. to serve as U.N. envoys in New York.

Last week State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Aboutalebi case was “separate” from the nuclear talks which, she said, “we’re focused on.”

“The fact that we’re negotiating on the nuclear issue, which is incredibly important to us, doesn’t negate the serious problems we have with Iran’s behavior in a number of areas – including Syria, including with terrorists, including with human rights,” she said.

Harf said Iran had to date “upheld every commitment” it made under last November’s interim agreement.

“So we can only judge them by their actions. On the nuclear issue, they have upheld their commitments, we hope they will continue to, and that’s what we’ll judge them on in terms of the P5+1 talks going forward.”

In the absence of diplomatic ties with the U.S. – they were severed in 1980 as a result of the hostage standoff – Iran’s only official representation in America is its mission to the U.N. in New York.

As host country the U.S. is expected to issue visas for foreign diplomats appointed to U.N. posts and exceptions may only be made under existing statutes in cases where the visa applicant “has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities directed against the United States or its allies and may pose a threat to United States national security interests.”

Cruz wants to amend that to ensure that visas are also denied to anyone involved in terrorism against the U.S.

Aboutalebi, a veteran diplomat, claims to have merely served as a translator for the hostage-takers. Some Iranian commentators have described him as one of a circle of purported “moderates” and “pragmatists” close to Rouhani.

During the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Aboutalebi served as ambassador to Australia where, according to a brief Australia Business Review report in August 2006, he “stunned a Canberra audience” with hardline remarks, insisting that Iran would never accept a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – even if the Palestinians themselves do.

“The ambassador’s vehement opposition to any bid to broker a peaceful resolution to the long-running Middle East dispute came as he also defended his country against claims that respect for basic human rights by its hardline Islamic government had continued to deteriorate, amid a crackdown on lawyers, journalists and other dissenters by regime-sponsored paramilitary groups and Iranian security forces,” the report said.

The Europe-based exiled opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which vociferously opposes the regime in Tehran, alleged last week that during an earlier diplomatic posting, in Rome, Aboutalebi was linked to a 1993 plot to assassinate of the NCRI’s representative in Italy – a diplomat who had defected to the opposition.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow