Hardliners in both the U.S. Congress and Iran were clearly ready to dive into the controversy over the Iranian pick of Hamid Aboutalebi–a reformist with close ties to Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani–to be Tehran’s new ambassador to the United Nations. The motivation seems clear. Those in Congress, such as Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), have shown little enthusiasm for the thawing in relations between Washington and Tehran following Rouhani’s visit to the UN last year and the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. For the Iranians’ part, hardliners within Iran have much to gain by undermining moderates, such as Rouhani and Aboutalebi, and sabotaging the White House’s diplomatic efforts.
Aboutalebi, while far from “an acknowledged terrorist,” as Cruz characterized him, did, on several occasions, serve as a translator for the student radicals holding 52 Americans hostage during the Iran hostage crisis. No evidence has been produced to suggest that Aboutalebi played any planning or operational role in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy compound. But Congressional hawks would violate U.S. treaty obligations to grant visas to UN ambassadors and, in the process, risk derailing fast moving diplomatic negotiations with Iran. If hardliners want to see Aboutalebi prosecuted for serving as a translator during the hostage crisis, they should explain why pursuing this agenda is worth violating U.S. treaty obligations, hampering the work of U.S. diplomats, and undermining the efforts of Iran’s moderates to fundamentally shift the Islamic Republic’s relationship with its long-time archenemy in the West.
—Eli Clifton is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute. He is coauthor of the Center for American Progress’s report Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.