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US immigration denies visa to Iran's UN envoy

The US has refused to grant a visa to Iran's chosen delegate to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi. Because the UN meets in New York, this in effect prevents Mr Aboutalebi from taking up his post. The Iranians have protested that the US is in breach of international law.

US Senators believe that Mr Aboutalebi was involved in the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Teheran during which 52 American embassy staff were held captive for over a year. The Congressmen and women believe that he should therefore be barred from entering the US. Mr Aboutalebi denies any previous wrong-doing.

It is highly unusual for the US to deny visas to UN delegates. The US agreed in 1947 that UN delegates would always be allowed entry to the US so that they could have access to the UN Building in New York; it has usually abided by the agreement.

Yasser Arafat

The most high-profile refusal came in 1998, when the US barred Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation a visa, thereby preventing him from addressing the UN Security Council. The UN issued a rebuke to the US on that occasion.

The US has also denied visas to other Iranian officials wishing to attend meetings at the UN. In April 2012, several Iranian officials were prevented from attending a meeting of the UN's Third Committee which deals with social issues and human rights.

Other officials were refused entry to the US in 2009 shortly after the Iranian authorities had crushed a popular uprising against the re-election of Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Many Iranians believed that Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election had only been secured through wide-spread ballot rigging and they took to the streets to protest. Many were killed when security forces shot into crowds.

Congress

However, these officials had not been appointed as ambassador for a member state of the UN. On Thursday 10th April 2014, both Houses of the US Congress passed a bill which allows the US to refuse a visa for a UN representative if he is deemed to be a security risk.

President Obama has not yet signed the bill and so it is not yet US law but the visa is being refused nonetheless. While Mr Obama may not have signed the bill, it is clear that the US has no intention of allowing Mr Aboutalebi entry to the US. The President's spokesman, Jay Carney, says that the president 'share[s] the intent of the bill'.

The Iranians have complained and accused the Americans of a breach of international law. Hamid Babaei, a member of the Iranian delegation to the UN said 'the obligation of the host country and the inherent right of sovereign member-states to designate their representatives to the United Nations'.

Experienced diplomat

The Iranians are not prepared to appoint an alternative representative. They say that Mr Aboutalebi is an experienced diplomat who cannot be replaced. He has previously served as Iran's ambassador to Belgium, Italy and Australia and also its official ambassador to the European Union without encountering any difficulty.

It seems unlikely that either side will back down.

Mr Aboutalebi is accused of being in the group of students who stormed the US embassy in Tehran In 1979. At this time, the regime of the Shah of Iran, backed by the US and the UK, was under attack from Iranians who rose up as part of the 'Islamic revolution' which brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

52 hostages, 444 days

On November 4th 1979, a group of students took over the embassy. They took 52 American embassy staff hostage and held them for 444 days until January 20th 1981. On April 24th 1980, the US launched an abortive attempt to rescue the embassy staff during which eight US servicemen were killed.

Mr Aboutalebi has always denied being one of the students involved in the storming of the embassy. He says that he merely worked as a translator helping the students and hostages communicate.

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