Paul Pillar

The Aboutalebi Affair in Context

The Obama administration has to perform a balancing act in handling the Iran account. One one hand it has the task, along with its diplomatic partners, of completing negotiations with Iran of an agreement to place unprecedented limits on the Iranian nuclear program to assure that it remains peaceful. Although the negotiators still have to iron out many details, this is actually the more straightforward part of the act. The negotiations are on track, Iran is abiding by the terms of a preliminary agreement, and there is clear shape to a prospective agreement that would support nonproliferation goals as well as drawing down sanctions that have been damaging to the United States as well as to Iran.

The other part of the balancing act, which is the more troublesome part, is to deal with forces that are opposed to any agreement with Iran and are endeavoring to undermine the negotiation of one. These forces include most conspicuously the current government of Israel and its American supporters, who want to keep any Iranian competitor for influence permanently estranged and to keep the specter of an Iranian security threat around forever as a focus of attention. They include American neoconservatives, who when they were giving us the Iraq War assigned Iran to the Axis of Evil and told the Iranians to “take a number.” They include political opponents of Barack Obama who reflexively oppose anything he favors and see a political incentive to sabotage what would be one of his most significant foreign policy achievements. These elements overlap a lot and collectively do not constitute as large an opposition as this fractionated description might suggest. But anything they do under the label of opposing Iran is supported by the perceptual habits of a larger American public that has become accustomed to seeing Iran as nothing but an adversary to be confronted and opposed.

The administration has to manage these destructive forces, in a combination of parrying and propitiating, so as not to allow them to ruin the negotiations. This partly involves doing and saying certain things to display strength and resolution toward Iran, to refute accusations that the administration's posture is one of weakness and to demonstrate that the agreement that emerges from the negotiations will be the best that could be obtained. It also involves allowing people from time to time to let off some anti-Iranian steam. This applies not so much to those who are determined to sabotage a negotiated agreement anyway but rather to members of Congress who feel a need, given the political climate in which they have to operate, periodically to make confrontational gestures against Iran.

Thus the administration is prudent not to go to the mat over some gestures that, although they may be more directly unhelpful than helpful to the negotiations and may be promoted by those whose motives are ignoble, take steam and energy away from other possible measures that would be even more destructive. We have seen this recently with some Congressional letters that were a substitute for what would have been much more damaging sanctions legislation. We may be seeing it again with the denial of a visa to Iran's newly designated ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, following Senate passage of legislation that would have had the same effect.

On the merits of the visa issue itself, the United States is acting wrongly. Denying the visa is a clear abrogation of the responsibilities of the United States as the host nation for the United Nations headquarters. No international organization could operate properly if the host nation were to behave in such a way for whatever rationale. It is not true, as has been widely asserted, that there is a “security exception” permitting such a denial. The U.S. law implementing the U.N. headquarters agreement speaks of security considerations as a possible reason for limiting travel of duly designated national representatives to the U.N. headquarters district, not for denying access to the district itself. For the law to read otherwise would have made a mockery of the headquarters agreement that placed the United Nations at Turtle Bay in the first place. In any case, it is hardly plausible that Aboutalebi, who is now a senior diplomat who has served as ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy, and the European Union, poses a security threat today.

If one looks beyond international legal obligations, there is room for arguing back and forth about denying a visa to Aboutalebi. If one were to take a stand in favor of reasonableness in policy toward Iran, this might not be the best place to take it. Although Aboutalebi has served as ambassador to other Western countries, it was the United States that was the victim of the hostage-taking in Tehran in 1979. That was an inexcusable terrorist act. All those who participated in it share responsibility for it. That a particular individual played a lesser role than some others does not absolve the individual of all responsibility. Nor does the notion of youthful indiscretion hold water, as a matter either of personal integrity or of affecting the incentives of youthful would-be perpetrators of similar acts in the future.

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