Document of the Week: Trump Administration Shrinks Iran’s U.S. Footprint

With the State Department imposing new travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats, New York City influencers trek across town to see Tehran’s foreign minister.

During the highs and lows of U.S.-Iran relations over the past decade, Tehran’s most visible diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has routinely made the rounds of New York City television networks and think tanks to take his case to the American public.

This week, America’s influencers had to make the trek to Manhattan’s east side to see the Iranian foreign minister at his country’s U.N. mission. In a throwback to the Cold War, when the United States imposed a 25-mile travel limit on diplomatic representatives of the Soviet Union and other American adversaries, the State Department has ordered strict new travel limitations that confine the Iranian delegation to a handful of New York City neighborhoods, buildings, and roads leading to John F. Kennedy Airport. Off limits were some of Zarif’s regular stomping grounds: the Council on Foreign Relations and the midtown television studios of PBS, NBC, and a host of other broadcast giants.

As part of our Document of the Week series, we are publishing a copy of the diplomatic note from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to Iran advising Tehran’s U.N. diplomats of the new restrictions.

The note begins with the standard diplomatic niceties, in which the U.S. mission “presents its compliments to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations.” But then it quickly gets to the point.

Iranian diplomats, their relatives, and mission support staff are confined to a narrow stretch along the length of the United Nations, from 42nd to 48th Street, as well as a six-block patch surrounding Queensboro Plaza in Long Island City. They can travel to the Iranian mission on 3rd Avenue or the Iranian ambassador’s residence on 5th Avenue. The Iranians are also permitted to drive to John F. Kennedy Airport via the Queens Midtown Tunnel, unless they seek a waiver to take a different route. But many key destinations, including a local Persian restaurant, the Miraj Healthy Grill, frequented by Iranian diplomats, are off limits.

“It is certainly not a friendly action. It puts the members of the mission and their families under basically inhuman conditions,” Zarif told reporters at the United Nations.

The note also states that Zarif “is being admitted to the United States for the sole purpose of attending UN meetings” and instructs him to “restrict his activities to UN-related business only.”

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said the U.N. had “conveyed its concerns to the host country” about the new U.S. restrictions on Iranian diplomats.

Zarif did visit U.N. headquarters on Wednesday to deliver a brief statement before a conference on the sustainable development goals, and he met with Guterres for a closed-door meeting on Thursday afternoon.

But he spent most of the week briefing U.S. journalists and editors on Iranian-U.S. tensions, floating a proposal to submit to enhanced international inspections of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, and insisting that Iran had no evidence to support U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that the United States shot down an Iranian drone. He may also meet with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who reportedly asked Trump to allow him to act as an informal emissary to Iran.

The United States is obliged by international treaties—including a U.N. host country pact—to approve visas for foreign diplomats doing business at the United Nations, even those from countries like Iran that have no diplomatic relations with the United States.

But the United States has taken advantage of a national security exception—which permits it to reject diplomatic visa applications if Washington contends they pose a threat to the United States—to make life in Manhattan for America’s adversaries, including Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, less pleasant. The visa disputes have been documented in a series of cable released by WikiLeaks.

As far back as October 2006, the U.S. mission expressed concern to the State Department that persistent delays in the issuance of visas to certain delegations, including Cuba, Syria, and Russia, was subjecting the United States to claims that it was violating its obligation, as host country, to approve visiting diplomats’ visas to travel to U.N. events “without charge and as promptly as possible.” The cable was signed by then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who is now Trump’s hard-line national security advisor.

In 2008, Iran accused the United States of abusing its position as host country and failing to provide timely visas for seven Iranian officials seeking to attend a U.N. conference on women, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Washington countered that the Iranians formally applied for the visas too late.

In a July 2009 cable, made public by WikiLeaks, Susan Rice, the then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained to the State Department that denials and delays in the issuance of visas to foreign diplomats were hurting U.S. standing as the U.N. host. She cited the case of an Iranian official, Alireza Salari Sharifabadi, who had sought a U.S. visa to attend a meeting at the U.N. from June 24-26 on the subject of the global financial crisis. But the United States delayed a decision until nearly a month after the event had occurred, informing the Iranian mission only in late July that it had rejected the request. U.S. “credibility is damaged when a visa is denied so long after the fact,” according to the Rice cable. The U.N. legal office, she noted, “considers visa denials and delays a serious problem.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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