Q: The controversial choice of Hamid Aboutalebi to represent Iran at the UN allegedly threatens the progress of a US-Iran nuclear agreement. It’s Aboutalebi’s purported role in the 1979 US hostage crisis that rankles US lawmakers, who see the appointment as irresponsible. 1979 was a very long time ago geopolitically: the Soviet Union was still ten years from ruin and (since disgraced and defeated) world leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Muammar el-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein were virtual, if not overt, US allies. What is a reasonable statute of limitations for a political action or position, especially in a region as volatile as the Middle East?
A: Countries have a right to choose their diplomatic representatives. So too, though, is there a right for those receiving diplomatic representatives to declare the members of the diplomatic mission of another state persona non grata and send them home, or to refuse to accept them at all. And while the United States treats accreditation of diplomats to the United Nations differently from the way it treats accreditation in the bilateral context because of its obligations as a UN host state, the process that applies to bilateral diplomatic relations illustrates a broader point about the messages sent by diplomatic appointments. Indeed, the right to reject diplomatic appointments has been exercised periodically in order to send a message about behavior that states find unacceptable, and in so doing, to reinforce certain norms of international conduct. In this regard, the choices countries make about who should represent them abroad says a lot about their values, perspectives, and sense of their own place in the international order.
This brings us to the case of Hamid Aboutalebi, someone who is alleged to have participated in the post-revolutionary seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the detention of American diplomats, and someone who Iran would like to be its representative at the UN. The Embassy seizure was roundly condemned by the international community, and was the subject of an adverse judgment by the International Court of Justice. But at the same time, Iran purports to want to be a fully integrated member of the international community. This is, after all, the fundamental premise of the ongoing nuclear negotiations—in exchange for concessions regarding its nuclear program, proliferation-related sanctions will be lifted and Iran will be able to participate in the global economic system. But Iran cannot have it both ways. It cannot both engage in conduct that violates fundamental norms of the international community and also purport to be among the leaders of that same community. In this regard, Iran’s nomination of Aboutalebi is consistent with its direct assistance to the government of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Iran’s pursuit of its perceived interests in Syria undermines fundamental norms of the international community that are intended to protect civilian life and facilitate representative governance. This does not mean that a narrow deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program is impossible. What it does mean, though, is that–again–Iran cannot have things both ways: it cannot take measures that undermine the norms of the order that it wishes to lead. And appointing as Iran’s UN representative someone intimately involved in the seizure of the American Embassy and the unlawful detention of American diplomats would do just that.
–Zachary K. Goldman is the Executive Director at the Center on Law and Security at NYU. A former Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he has published in Political Science Quarterly, Foreign Affairs and The Atlantic, among others.