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Iran protests at U.N. committee on envoy ban as U.S. stands ground

United Nations
United Nations

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran complained to a United Nations committee on Tuesday about Washington's refusal to grant a visa to Tehran's proposed new U.N. envoy due to his suspected links to hostage-takers, even as the United States stood firm on its decision.

The United States said earlier this month that it would not grant a visa to Hamid Abutalebi because of his connection to the 1979-1981 Tehran hostage crisis when Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Abutalebi has said he acted only as a translator.

"As far as we know this is a unique case involving a permanent representative," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.

The U.N. Committee on Relations with the Host Country, which deals with the issues of states operating in the United States such as immigration, security, banking and parking violations, met on Tuesday at Iran's request to discuss the matter.

"Iran and the United States presented their views," said Cyprus' U.N. Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou, who chairs the 19-member committee. "There was a discussion ... with the participation of seven other delegations and the committee decided to remain seized of the issue."

Diplomats at the meeting said Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and Ecuador spoke in support of Iran's complaint.

According to the diplomats, the United States said it takes seriously the responsibility of hosting the United Nations, but said it had concerns about Abutalebi's role in the hostage crisis and that it would be intolerable for him to receive diplomatic protection that he had denied others.

The United States told the committee that its position of not granting visas to people involved in the Tehran hostage crisis was not new, diplomats said.

President Barack Obama had come under strong pressure not to allow Abutalebi into the country to take up his position. Former hostages objected to Abutalebi, and a normally divided Congress passed legislation that would ban him.

That legislation became law on Friday when Obama signed it. It bars any U.N. representative deemed to be behind acts of terrorism or espionage against the United States or considered a threat to U.S. national security.

Tehran has steadfastly stuck by its choice for U.N. ambassador, describing Abutalebi as a seasoned diplomat. He has served as ambassador to Italy, Belgium and Australia and is not known as a hardliner or for having staunch anti-Western views.

In a letter to the U.N. committee last week Iran described the U.S. decision as a dangerous precedent that could harm international diplomacy. It is not clear whether Iran plans to ask the committee to take action on the issue. The committee could ask U.N. lawyers to provide an opinion on it.

Under a 1947 "headquarters agreement," the United States is generally required to allow access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats. Washington has said it can deny visas for "security, terrorism, and foreign policy" reasons.

A 1947 Joint Resolution of Congress said nothing should be seen as "diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely control the entrance of aliens" into any part of the United States aside from U.N. headquarters.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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