Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Time for apologies

The controversy over Iran’s appointment of a new head of mission at the United Nations in New York has revealed the lingering distrust between the US and Iran, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iran’s mission at the United Nations in New York is the country’s only channel to communicate with the United States. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 1980 when the US embassy in Tehran was seized and 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days.

It is for this reason that the standoff between the two countries regarding the appointment of a new Iranian head of mission to the UN has had real importance.

Efforts to solve Iran’s controversial nuclear programme diplomatically had been failing, and with it fears of military confrontation had been growing, before the new government of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani boosted the nuclear talks and the US government opposed the introduction of new sanctions against Iran while the talks were proceeding.

However, it was still hard for Iranian hardliners to warm to the US since the foundation of the Islamic Revolution was its anti-western and anti-imperialist character. There is also strong resistance in the United States against normalisation with Iran, notably among Republicans and the Israeli lobby. 

There are many disputes between the two countries that will need years to be solved, and there have been events that had had little to do with the governments but have been important for ordinary citizens.

For Americans, the hostage crisis in Iran was a sensitive event, and for Iranians the coup against prime minister Mohamed Mosadegh in 1953, organised by the CIA to overthrow his democratically elected government and restore Mohamed Reza Pahlavi to power, still causes anger.

There was also the horrifying act of the US navy, which shot down an Iranian civilian airplane in 1988 with 290 people on board, all of whom were killed. The US never admitted responsibility for this action, nor apologised for it.

Iran did not apologise to the Americans for taking their diplomats hostage for more than a year either, and when it comes to these topics the peoples of the two countries can react faster and ahead of their governments.

Despite these sensitivities, steps have had to be taken to improve relations. However, after almost a year in power Rouhani’s choice of head of mission for the Iranian delegation at the UN has turned out to be someone who had sat with the hostage-takers for pictures.

Hamid AbuTalebi, whom Iran describes as a high-profile diplomat, is associated for Americans with terrorism and being involved in the hostage crisis. “It does not matter if he was a terrorist or not or whether you call his group “terrorist.” The fact is he has been involved in wrongdoing against the United States and by law and the United States has the right to exclude him for reasons of national security,” commented ambassador John Limbert, a former US diplomat who was held hostage in Iran in 1980.

The United States has strongly condemned Iran choice’s for the UN mission and asked for a replacement, but Iran has rejected withdrawing AbuTalebi’s nomination.

The appointment has been a shock to the Obama administration and supporters of normalising relations with Iran. Rouhani was also elected on a platform of improving the country’s international relations and of course also its economy. 

These goals cannot be achieved if Iran does not change its tone towards the US and solve the nuclear dispute. The expectation was that Iran would seek to appoint a trustworthy person in New York to smooth relations between the two countries and engage with US lawmakers and officials.

However, many in the US have called AbuTalebi’s nomination a “provocation” and an assault on Americans. “No visa for Hamid AbuTalebi,” the Congress and finally the US president have said.

Iran has not given up, however, and has made an official complaint to the United Nations against the United States for refusing AbuTalebi’s visa.

“What is there to complain of and on what basis,” asked Limbert. “It is absurd that those same authorities who violated international law and – as opportunists- supported a shameful act on the part of a group of young people who occupied the US embassy and took the diplomats hostage is now talking about international law. Iran’s government was responsible for our safety and security, but instead it supported the hostage takers.”

For Americans, it would be unacceptable to give AbuTalebi diplomatic immunity when the hostage crisis still remains a wound between the two countries. AbuTalebi himself has denied having any direct involvement with the hostage-taking, saying that his involvement was limited to acting as an interpreter.

Limbert said that were AbuTalebi to take up the position in New York he would not be the Iranian ambassador to the United States but he would still be the most senior Iranian diplomat on US soil.

“Iran’s diplomats are at the UN, but are on US soil and engaged with the US press and possibly have contacts with American officials and civil society including the media. Even if he got a visa and came to the US, he would not be able to carry out his duties as no American could agree to talk to him because of his past and his credentials as a diplomat would be in question,” Limbert added.

“I don’t know what Iran’s government was aiming for in this appointment. Were they unaware of his past, or did they simply want to provoke Americans?”

Iran and the western powers in the so-called P5+1 group are due to meet at the UN in New York next month for a new round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme. The talks have reached a critical stage and are close to final agreement.

In response to the controversy over the appointment, Hassan Ghashghavi, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, said on 24 April that “AbuTalebi is Iran’s supreme representative at the United Nations.”  

The struggle over AbuTalebi shows the extent to which the two countries still need to address issues such as the hostage crisis and the coup against Mosadegh before they can take steps closer. For some people in both countries, the time has come for apologies on both sides. The question is whether the controversy over AbuTalebi will lead to them.

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