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

Share

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 “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”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.)

Why no Obama Rouhani meeting: White House offered, Iran declined

20130925-082403.jpg
New York __ There will be no meeting between President Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani this week, the White House said Tuesday, saying the Iranians had declined.

The White House offered to have “an encounter” between Obama and Rouhani at the United Nations, but the Iranians informed the US Tuesday “it is too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point,” senior US administration officials informed the White House pool reporter Tuesday afternoon.

“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official told the pool reporter.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.

Zarif attended and appeared to listen intently to Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning, during which Obama said the Iranian people deserve access to peaceful nuclear energy, and said the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran.

Rouhani however did not attend a lunch for world leaders hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, which Obama attended, and where some thought a handshake might occur. While some Iranians said Iranian leaders have avoided such UN lunches in the past because wine is served, several Iran experts thought a public encounter with the US president in the spotlight may just be too much for Rouhani at this point.

It may be “too much, too soon,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the Asia Society, which is hosting Rouhani Thursday. More important, she said, is the agreement that Kerry and Zarif will pursue a serious attempt at negotiations, which Obama firmly endorsed in his speech.

“I didn’t expect a handshake,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center said Tuesday, adding she is “still puzzled as to why both sides seemed to be hyping the possibility of a meeting, or at least didn’t dismiss it.”

“It’s not the right time for a presidential photo op, really,” Maloney said. “This needs to be more ripe to justify inserting the principals.”

“It’s important to note that the process here is what’s important,” a second senior US official said. “It’s the fact that Secretary Kerry is proceeding with P5+1…We were open to a meeting. The president was open to a meeting. But the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations.”

US officials said they had been able to convey messages about willingness for an encounter to Iran, including through staff contacts in New York, but declined to specify what those were.

“We have an ability to be in touch with the Iranians at a variety of levels,” a US official said. “We’ve been doing that here in New York, and today I think it became apparent that the two leaders having an encounter here on the margins of UNGA was not going to happen.”

“I think the takeaway again is the Iranians #1 have an internal dynamic that they have to manage,” the official continued. “The relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries even.”

“Now we see a real opening here for a diplomatic process, and that’s going to be carried forward by Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart , which is a significant elevation of the level that that exchange is taking place again through that P5+1 process,” the official said. “But again the Iranians at this point were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”

(Photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday September 24, 2013. Laura Rozen.)

zp8497586rq

Who would broker an Obama-Rouhani encounter in NY?


If President Obama decides to try to pursue a handshake or encounter with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week, odds are it may occur when he meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, before attending a lunch hosted by Ban, a veteran of US-Iran dialogues suggested Friday.

“There is a range of potential interlocutors to coordinate such an encounter,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy studies at the Asia Society, told the Back Channel Friday. “Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a Tuesday lunch. That would be [ideal], given he’s an international civil servant.”

No meeting between Obama and Rouhani next week is currently planned, though Obama is open to engagement, the White House said again Friday. Obama is currently scheduled to have four one-on-one meetings with world leaders in New York, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists in a call Friday previewing Obama’s schedule in New York.

Obama will meet on Monday with Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, and then on Tuesday, following his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama is due to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. Obama is then due to meet privately with the UN’s Ban, then attend a lunch hosted by Ban, Rhodes said. Finally, Obama is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before attending a Clinton Global Initiative event promoting health care hosted by former President Bill Clinton.

Given that schedule, it seems most likely that, if an encounter between Obama and Rouhani were to occur, it would be brokered by Ban, DiMaggio mused. Her organization, the Asia Society, is due to host Rouhani at an event Thursday for think tank scholars, along with the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been involved in extensive track 2 work on Iran.

There are rumors that Ban might also organize a meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, DiMaggio said.

“There’s some creative thinking going on,” she said.

There could be some US-Iran “interaction at different levels”, the NSC’s Rhodes said in the press call Friday. “I can’t predict every interaction that might take place.”

Continue reading