Iran has named Hamid Aboutalebi, a militant who helped hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, to be its next ambassador to the United Nations, reports Bloomberg.
Aboutalebi, Iran’s former ambassador to Belgium and Italy, was a member of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, the group of radical students that seized the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. (“Imam” refers to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution.)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has carefully crafted an image as a “moderate”, chose Aboutalebi to serve at the UN, which is headquartered in New York City on what is officially international soil. The Iranian government has applied for a U.S. visa for Aboutalebi. The State Department hasn’t yet responded to the visa application.
The Obama administration has largely accommodated Iran’s Rouhani government over the past year as the U.S. tries to coax Iran into giving up its nuclear weapons development capabilities. But the appointment of a captor of U.S. hostages may be too much to swallow even for the Obama team.
Diplomatic visas are generally granted as a matter of routine. But a controversy over Aboutalebi’s appointment could spark demands on Capitol Hill and beyond during this congressional election year for the Obama administration to take the unusual step of denying a visa to an official posted to the UN.
Denying an Iranian UN ambassador a visa could also affect the chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. and five other world powers are seeking to negotiate with Iran by July 20.
Aboutalebi recently has downplayed his own role in the hostage crisis, saying he didn’t take part in the initial occupation of the embassy, and only acted as translator and negotiator, according to an interview he gave to the Khabaronline news website in Iran.
“On a few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French,” Aboutalebi said, according to Khabaronline.
“I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released, and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.” He was referring to the release of some female and minority embassy staff members during the first few weeks of the crisis in November 1979.
But his modesty about his role notwithstanding, his photograph is displayed on Taskhir, the website of the Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line. Taskhir means capture or occupation in Persian.
According to Mohammad Hashemi, one of the students who led the occupation of the embassy, Iran’s revolutionary government also dispatched Aboutalebi and Abbas Abdi, another architect of the occupation, as emissaries to Algiers, which at the time was the headquarters of numerous third-world liberation movements.