Decades later, hostage crisis still haunts US-Iranian relations

(By Deutsche Welle) The White House has refused to grant a visa to Iran’s new UN ambassador due to his involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis. The diplomatic clash comes at a delicate time in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Responding to a groundswell of domestic pressure, the Obama administration has denied a visa to Iran’s new UN ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi. The White House decision goes against normal diplomatic protocol, raising questions about Washington’s ability to unilaterally veto another country’s choice of representation at the world body.

Aboutalebi was a member of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. The student group seized the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days during the 1979 Islamic revolution, which ousted the US-backed Shah dictatorship and brought Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime to power. Aboutalebi says he worked for the student group only as a translator and negotiator.

“Given his role in the events of 1979, which clearly matter profoundly to the American people, it would be unacceptable for the United States to grant this visa,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington last Tuesday.

Although Tehran’s decision to choose Aboutalebi may not have been politically wise in hindsight, the Islamic Republic did not intend to provoke the US by selecting him as UN ambassador, according to Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“They had sent this person to the European Union before; he had served as an ambassador in other countries,” Geranmayeh told DW. “His previous background has never been an issue in the same way that it has come up in the US context.”

“I do think that there was genuinely never an intention on the Iranian side to provoke, because if they really wanted to do that there were other applicants that have probably more difficult backgrounds to sell to the US than Hamid’s one,” she said.

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