WASHINGTON (AP) — In a rare diplomatic rebuke, the United States will not grant a visa to Tehran's controversial pick for envoy to the United Nations, the Obama administration said Friday.
"We've communicated with the Iranians at a number of levels and made clear our position on this — and that includes our position that the selection was not viable," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "Our position is that we will not be issuing him a visa."
Denying visas to U.N. ambassadorial nominees or to foreign heads of state who want to attend United Nations events in the United States is unusual, if not unprecedented. The move comes amid a possible thaw in the decades-long diplomatic freeze between the U.S. and Iran, as the two countries negotiate a deal to curb Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
The Obama administration had previously said only that it opposed the nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was a member of the group responsible for the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. U.S. officials had hoped the issue could be resolved by Tehran simply withdrawing the nomination.
Aboutalebi is alleged to have participated in a Muslim student group that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days during the takeover. His nomination has outraged members of Congress, who passed a bill barring entry to the U.S. to an individual found to be engaged in espionage, terrorism or a threat to national security.
Carney would not say whether President Barack Obama would sign the bill but said the president shares its sentiments.
United Nations officials had no immediate comment on the U.S. decision.
Iran has called U.S. rejection of Aboutalebi "not acceptable," with Iranian state television quoting Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying Aboutalebi is one of the country's best diplomats and arguing that he previously received a U.S. visa. Aboutalebi has insisted his involvement in the group involved in the embassy takeover, Muslim Students Following the Imam's Line, was limited to translation and negotiation.
Iranian officials said they had submitted a visa application for Aboutalebi, but it was unclear whether the U.S. actually denied the request or simply decided not to act on it. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the administration was prohibited from discussing the matter in detail because visa cases are confidential.
In past problematic cases — such as with a previous Iranian nominee in the early 1990s and more recently with Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir — the U.S. has either signaled opposition to the applicant and the request has been withdrawn, or the State Department has simply declined to process the application. Those options, as well as approving or denying the application, are available in the current case.
U.S. immigration law allows broad rejection of visas to foreigners and, in many cases, authorities do not have to give an explicit reason why other than to deem the applicant a threat to national security or American policy.
The law bars foreigners whose entry or activity in the U.S. would "have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States."
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Peter Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.