Taunt Or Miscalculation? Iran's Provocative Pick For U.N. Envoy

Apr 5, 2014
Originally published on April 5, 2014 6:18 am

Iran's reported decision to name Hamid Aboutalebi as its ambassador to the United Nations has ignited anger in the U.S. That's because the diplomat was part of the student group that held Americans hostage in 1979. Now, dozens of lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to deny him a visa.

It's the latest sign of just how difficult it will be for Washington and Tehran to overcome decades of mistrust.

By most accounts, Aboutalebi wasn't directly involved in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He has been quoted as saying he was just an occasional interpreter. But that makes no difference to retired U.S. Air Force Col. David Roeder, who along with 51 other Americans spent 444 harrowing days in captivity in Iran.

"He was not one of those that held a gun to my head. He wasn't one of those who beat me and kicked me and that sort of thing," Roeder says. "But he was there. And he was part of it. And you are a product of your past."

The U.S. State Department calls the potential nomination of Aboutalebi "extremely troubling" and says officials have raised this with Iran. Roeder thinks Iran is testing the Obama administration.

"I have a couple of little grandsons, and they are constantly testing me to see how much they can get away with," he says. "And I think that's exactly what the Iranians are doing to us. They are tweaking our nose to see how much they can get out of the U.S."

Iranian human rights activist Hadi Ghaemi isn't so sure.

"I don't think it was that premeditated," Ghaemi says. "I think it was basically a huge miscalculation by [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani."

He says Aboutalebi is considered to be a fairly progressive diplomat and a close confidant to Rouhani. And Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says he thinks Rouhani saw Aboutalebi as only a marginal player in the hostage drama and didn't expect such a strong reaction to the appointment.

"Those 444 days are so important in the public consciousness [in the U.S.] that anyone who would have cooperated with that process would be implicated and wouldn't be tolerated as an ambassador," Ghaemi says.

He says he now expects Iran to choose someone else to serve at the U.N., Iran's only diplomatic representation in the U.S.

"The key thing is I do hope that Rouhani has a bigger pool of confidants of people who can promote his policy and continue the opening to the U.S. than just this one guy," Ghaemi says

As host nation to the U.N., the U.S. generally has to issue visas to envoys picked by member states. But the U.S. does have some flexibility. And Roeder, the former hostage, says in the case of Aboutalebi, the U.S. should stand its ground.

"It's time to play hardball. It's time to stop the tweaking. It's time to confront the bully," he says.

This dispute highlights how complicated it will be for the U.S. and Iran to turn a page.

One of the senators who wrote to President Obama about Aboutalebi's nomination — Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia — calls it an insult. Isakson would like to see Iran apologize for the hostage-taking and compensate the victims — though he says he knows that's unlikely.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nuclear negotiations with Iran resume this week in Vienna. But the climate is now even more complicated because of the man that Iran reportedly wants to send to the United Nations to be its ambassador. That diplomat was on the scene during the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran so some U.S. lawmakers want the Obama administration to deny him a visa. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the pushback that this potential nomination is receiving.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: By most accounts, Hamid Aboutalebi wasn't directly involved in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. He's been quoted as saying he was just an occasional interpreter. But that makes no difference to retired Air Force Colonel David Roeder, who along with 51 other Americans spent 444 harrowing days in captivity in Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DAVID ROEDER: He was not one of those that held a gun to my head. He wasn't one of those that beat me and kicked me and all that sort of thing. But he was there. And he was part of it. And, you know, you are a product of your past.

KELEMEN: The State Department calls the potential nomination of Aboutalebi extremely troubling and says officials have raised this with Iran. Roeder thinks Iran is testing the Obama administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ROEDER: I have a couple of little grandsons. And they are constantly testing me as to see how much they can get away with. And I think that's exactly what the Iranians are doing to us. They're tweaking our nose to see how much more they can get out of the U.S.

KELEMEN: An Iranian human rights activist Hadi Ghaemi is not so sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HADI GHAEMI: I don't think that it was that premeditated. I think it was basically a huge miscalculation by Rouhani.

KELEMEN: He says Aboutalebi is considered to be a fairly progressive diplomat and a close confidant to President Hassan Rouhani. And Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says he thinks Rouhani saw Aboutalebi as only a marginal player in the hostage drama and didn't expect such a strong reaction to the appointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

GHAEMI: Those 444 days are so important in the public consciousness here that anyone who would have cooperated with that process would be implicated and wouldn't be tolerated as an ambassador.

KELEMEN: Ghaemi says he now expects Iran to choose someone else to serve at the UN, Iran's only diplomatic representation in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

GHAEMI: The key thing here is that I do hope Rouhani has a bigger pool of confidants and people who can promote his policy and continue this opening toward the U.S. than just one guy.

KELEMEN: As host nation to the UN, the U.S. generally has to issue visas to envoys picked by member states. But the U.S. does have some flexibility. And Roeder, the former hostage, says in the case of Aboutalebi, the U.S. should stand its ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ROEDER: It's time to play hardball. It's time to stop the tweaking. It's time to confront the bully.

KELEMEN: This dispute highlights how complicated it will be for the U.S. and Iran to turn a page. One of the senators who wrote to President Obama about this - Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia - calls the nomination and insult. He'd like to see Iran apologize for the hostagetaking and compensate the victims, though he says he knows that's unlikely. Michele Kelemen, NPR news, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.