In a deeply divided United States Senate, the idea of often-intense partisan Senators working together on anything is almost far-fetched. But in a rare bipartisan effort, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate unanimously passed legislation S 2195. A similar legislation is now being introduced in the House of Representatives and should be on its way to President Obama’s desk for signature fairly quickly. The man behind this legislation is Ted Cruz, a first-term senator from Texas. But the man we should wholeheartedly thank for bringing back the spirit of bipartisanship to the US Congress is Hamid Aboutalebi.
Senator Cruz’s legislation is in fact targeting Mr. Aboutalebi. He was recently appointed by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to represent his country at the United Nations Headquarter in New York City. The White House has called the appointment “extremely troubling” but stopped short of saying he should be barred from the US. Protocol dictates the US accept UN diplomatic staff and foreign leaders, even from its adversaries, although Washington insists there are exceptions to the rule. The US Government views Aboutalebi’s appointment controversial because he was a member of the student group that led the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran. But he has denied direct participation in the seizure of the embassy more than three decades ago, which resulted in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days.
This controversy comes at critical time for the US, Iran and the world powers as the nuclear negotiations are resuming and negotiators would specifically address the text of a final agreement. In fact the dispute could threaten to derail talks in Vienna during this critical phase. But Senator Cruz wasted no time introducing the Senate legislation and calling Iran’s nomination of Aboutalebi a “deliberate and unambiguous insult to the United States”. Senator Cruz spoke on the Senate floor last week and compared allowing Aboutalebi — a “known terrorist” entering the US to “allowing Osama Bin-Laden to enter the US to represent Afghanistan at the UN”. According to Senator Cruz, Iran’s sending a central figure in the outrage in Tehran “is not an accident” and is “designed to be a slap in the face”.
So who is Hamid Aboutalebi? Where did Iran hide him since 1979? and Why is he being appointed as the country’s UN envoy?
Mr. Aboutalebi happens to be an experienced diplomat. He was previously Iran’s ambassador to Australia, the European Union, Belgium, Italy also served as a political director general to Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now a close political advisor to Hassan Rouhani. He obtained his Ph.D. in historical sociology from Katholieke Universiteit in Belgium after completing his graduate degree in sociology from Sorbonne in Paris. He also has published numerous publications and has been running prominent foreign policy think tanks in Tehran.
As a matter of fact Senator Cruz is correct. Aboutalebi’s appointment “is not an accident” And maybe his appointment is because he is simply “qualified for the position and has had important diplomatic posts in Europe and Australia and has had a good, effective and positive performance during his past diplomatic missions,” according to Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman. And not just “a slap in the face”. If Senator Cruz’s recent assertions about Mr. Aboutalebi are entirely accurate, should the United States Senate also unanimously condemn the European Union, Belgium, Italy and Australia for knowingly allowing this “known terrorist” to enter their countries? Should the Senate also pass a legislation sanctioning the French and Belgian academic institutions for harboring and educating Mr. Aboutalebi?
There is no doubt that the 1979 hostage crisis brings back dark memories for both Iran and the US. Also, Americans of a certain age will not forget their bitter anger of the events that took place in Tehran. The reality is that both young Iranians involved in the seizure of the embassy and American diplomats held hostage, have gone on to hold senior positions in their respective governments. Maybe Tehran has failed to anticipate that Aboutalebi’s appointment would rapidly become politicized and cause strong opposition in Washington, regardless of how major or minor his role had been as a 22-year-old student at the time.
After all, time and Washington politics will determine if Mr. Aboutalebi — now a 57-year-old pragmatic diplomat aligned with President Rouhani’s circle with series of posts around the world — would be granted visa to enter the US and serve as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Regardless of the outcome, it goes without saying that we are delighted that Senator Cruz introduced us to Mr. Aboutalebi. Perhaps next time we even think about bringing Democrats and Republicans together in a bipartisan fashion to solve some of the most pressing problems that Americans of all ages are worried about such as; economy, unemployment, healthcare, federal deficit, education, rich-poor gap and many other issues — we will just pick up the phone and call Hamid Aboutalebi.