Can Iran’s New U.N. Ambassador Get Tehran Relief From U.N. Sanctions?
Washington blocked Tehran’s last choice but may have higher hopes for this one.
More than one year after U.S. President Barack Obama blocked Iran's choice for U.N. ambassador from taking up his post at Turtle Bay, Tehran has named a replacement, Gholamali Khoshroo, a career Iranian diplomat with close personal ties to some of Iran's most influential so-called reformist leaders.
More than one year after U.S. President Barack Obama blocked Iran’s choice for U.N. ambassador from taking up his post at Turtle Bay, Tehran has named a replacement, Gholamali Khoshroo, a career Iranian diplomat with close personal ties to some of Iran’s most influential so-called reformist leaders.
The appointment, which was announced in a statement Wednesday, Jan. 28, by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, places an Iranian diplomat with close ties to former President Mohammad Khatami and family ties to current President Hassan Rouhani in one of the country’s most important diplomatic posts.
The decision to appoint a new envoy to the United Nations comes as nuclear talks between Iran and the United States and other major powers are coming under fire from U.S. congressional critics of Iran, who are pressing for the passage of new sanctions that the White House claims will torpedo the delicate negotiations. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in a speech that is expected to attack the administration-backed talks as reckless and naive.* Obama has responded by taking the unusual step of avoiding a sit-down meeting with the visiting Israeli leader.
The appointment of Khoshroo caught Iranian analysts by surprise. The diplomat had been dispatched several months ago to Switzerland, where he currently serves as Rouhani’s ambassador.
“It is unusual to bring him now to New York,” Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at Tehran University, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview. Hadian said the abrupt move suggests the Iranian government struggled to agree on a suitable candidate for the job. “It means they cannot agree on someone else.”
Hadian said any appointment for U.N. ambassador would require agreement by President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“He was a compromise candidate,” Hadian told Foreign Policy in the telephone interview. “That’s important that he has the backing of all three. He has worked with former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who has a close connection with the supreme leader. Zarif knows him very well personally, and President Rouhani knows him personally.”
Wednesday’s announcement signaled Iran’s intention to move beyond its diplomatic dust-up with the United States over Washington’s denial of a visa to Iran’s initial pick for the U.N. job, Hamid Aboutalebi, because the veteran Iranian diplomat had worked as a translator for Iranian militants who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
But Iran said it is not prepared to entirely put the American snub behind it. In a statement announcing Khoshroo’s appointment, the Iranian Foreign Ministry noted that it had “lodged its protest on non-issuance of visa by the US to its former designated UN envoy.”**
“The new ambassador,” the statement continued, “will pursue through legal channels the illegal actions taken by the host country.”
Khoshroo, a former Iranian envoy to Australia and Switzerland, has previously served for seven years as Tehran’s second-highest-ranking diplomat at the United Nations. He is also said to be close to Zarif, Iran’s U.S.-educated foreign minister, who served more than a decade ago as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and is now leading Iran’s delegations in nuclear talks with the United States and five other big powers.
“Iran believes that in order to maintain the country’s national interests and uphold … its status at international fora, it should play an active and effective role in the UN mainly under the critical situation in the Middle East region and the world,” according to the Foreign Ministry’s statement.
Khoshroo has played “an active role in Iran’s nuclear talks” with the United States and other major powers, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and spent time as Tehran’s deputy foreign minister for education and research.
Khoshroo also served as an advisor to former President Khatami, helping to promote his signature “Dialogue Among Civilizations” campaign, which aimed to overcome religious and cultural differences between Islamic countries and the West and other regions of the world.
Khoshroo has not detailed what he hopes to accomplish as Iran’s most visible diplomat in the United States. But in an article he wrote this year on nuclear talks, Khoshroo made it clear that Tehran expects the Obama administration to push for an end to the U.N. and congressional sanctions against Iran as part of any final nuclear deal.
The United States and other big powers “should make a final decision on lifting the sanctions they have imposed against the Islamic Republic,” he wrote in an article in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam, which is edited by Seyed Mohammad Sadegh Kharazi, a senior advisor to Khatami. “It would be against the letter and spirit of the agreement, which the two sides are supposed to reach, to expect Iran to go through the bureaucratic maze of the other negotiating parties — for example, to wait for final decisions of the US Congress or the United Nations Security Council — in order to have sanctions removed.”
Khoshroo is also linked by marriage to Iran’s president. His son is married to the daughter of Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, who is a member of the president’s inner circle of advisors.
“I hear he is close to Khatami, Rouhani, and Zarif,” said one senior U.N.-based official. “If that is true, it is interesting that Rouhani would be able to appoint his guy to such a high-profile post.”
One Western diplomat who served in Tehran noted that Khoshroo had suffered the fate of many Khatami loyalists after the former president was pushed out of office.
“He has the typical career of a Khatami guy: He was completely sidelined” during the hard-line tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to the Western diplomat. “He’s a 100 percent Khatami guy.”
*Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: John Boehner is the speaker of the House. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said he was majority leader, a position he previously held. (Return to reading.)
**Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: The first two quotes from the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s statement contained transcription errors that have since been corrected. (Return to reading.)
Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/ Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.