Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

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U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)