One of the things (one of the many things) I hate about Barack Obama’s presidency is the sense of political expediency divorced of any values or ethics. We’ve seen this especially in his treatment of his nominees to senior positions. Though it seemed to happen much more often in his first term, when he cut the legs out from under both Chas. Freeman and Rob Malley for key security and Middle East State Department positions, it’s just happened again with the scuttling of the Iranian appointment of its UN ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi. Just as Freeman and Malley had liberal skeletons in their closet that spooked the Israel Lobby and allowed a manufactured crisis to destroy their candidacies, the administration has colluded with some former Iranian hostages and the GOP to blacklist Abutalebi.
What was his ‘crime?’ In 1979, he was associated with the student group whose members took over the U.S. embassy. It should be noted that not every member of this group participated in the takeover, nor did Aboutalebi. But at several junctures he was asked to serve as a translator at press conferences where hostages were freed. This is his sole offense. Someone took his picture at one such press conference and all you need is to have a picture in the embassy of yourself with a shaggy beard and you automatically become a hostage-taker.
This scurrilous, mendacious Bloomberg article began the onslaught with the spurious claim that the Iranian was directly involved in the hostage taking and embassy takeover. The State Department has called his appointment “extremely troubling,” without offering any support for their alleged concern. Members of Congress have already decided that he’s a bomb-throwing terrorist without offering any proof:
…Lawmakers have derided Aboutalebi as a terrorist and a key conspirator in the hostage crisis…
Who are these solons? Why, Chuck Schumer’s Aipac’s water-carrier and Ted Cruz, the Tea Party’s chief tea-taster and KoolAid drinker. What an unholy alliance!
Nima Shirazi’s comprehensive Muftah post unequivocally proves that Abutalebi had no leadership, organizational or substantive role in the 1979 embassy takeover. His involvement was incidental and peripheral. To paraphrase one of Nima’s interviewees–it’s as if you discovered that someone baked a casserole that was served at an SDS meeting in 1969. In fact, the Iranian diplomat believes the embassy takeover severely damaged relations between Iran and the U.S., which is a development he’s trying to repair.
Robert Mackey wrote an interesting analysis which notes that both the radical cultist terror group, the MeK and the Revolutionary Guards both have made common cause in sabotaging the Iranian’s diplomat’s role. Joining them is Ted Cruz, Tea Party darling, and Chuck Schumer, Bibi’s senate water-carrier, who each have falsely accused the Iranian of being a terrorist. Can you think of a more unlikely set of bedfellows than the MeK, IRG, Tea Party and Israel Lobby? None wants rapprochement between Iran and the west for which Abutalebi is a powerful advocate. Hence he is a worthy target. Killing his nomination will hurt the chances for an Iranian nuclear deal and reconciliation with the west.
Abutalebi was appointed to his position by the moderate Iranian government of Pres. Rouhani in January. The former UN ambassador left New York to begin his next diplomatic rotation, leaving no one at the helm in New York for many months. The U.S. never responded to Iranian requests for clarification of his status. They just expected the Iranians would get the message and withdraw him.
There is a larger context to the U.S. rejection of this diplomat. Though the UN is an international body with semi-autonomous status in both New York and the U.S., we have often used visas as a political tool to pursue our own vendettas and agendas. Usually, we’ve only refused to approve visas for foreign leaders or officials seeking to attend a UN session. We’ve done that regularly in the past with nations as varied as Russia, Iran, Libya, and Cuba. I asked Colum Lynch, who wrote 2011 Foreign Policy article linked above, about political abuse of the U.S. visa process, and he isn’t aware of any other instance in which an ambassador was denied his UN job in this fashion. So the Obama administration is setting yet another odious precedent in allowing international diplomacy to be subverted by petty political grandstanding.
Our involvement in the visa process of UN officials is governed by international treaties, which only allow us to deny approval if our national security is in danger. There is, of course, no possible way in which a moderate Iranian diplomat who supports the policies of Hassan Rouhani (and Mohammed Khatami before him) could do so. In other words, this is a pure cave in by Obama to anti-Iran interests. And he’s sacrificing our own commitment to international treaties. So we can expect countries sympathetic to Iran’s plight to do the same to us. But we will scream bloody murder if it happens, because the world simply does not do that to Americans from the land of the free and home of the brave. If it happens at all, we do it to you, not you to us. And remember that.
Returning to the opponents of the nomination, while I can sympathize with former hostages who seek financial redress from Iran for their ordeal, the way to pursue their case is not by holding a decent, moderate diplomat hostage. What sort of revenge is that? The world seeks resolution of outstanding issues between Iran and the world and appoints a man who can help do it; so you decide that your own suffering trumps the interests of the world community? Sorry, but that’s a no-win proposition.
The shame of it is that Obama has allowed himself to be spooked by all this. He measured his own political interests: he has a delicate nuclear negotiation with Iran in process. Anything can upset that apple cart. Plus, he will need the support of Congress once the deal is made. If he goes to the mat for an Iranian diplomat he may lose all the political capital he needs to accomplish tasks much more important to him.
So Hamid Aboutalebi is sacrificed on the altar of expediency. That’s the shame of it and shame of Obama’s presidency. It would be one thing if he made these choices and achieved great results. But he rarely does. He usually sheds nominees who become political dead-weight, but then gives away the store when it comes to achieving his larger goals, whether it be health care, financial reform, or national security. What a waste of a bright, ambitious, innovative, progressive presidential candidacy.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.