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Trump Administration Blocks Iran’s Top Diplomat From Addressing the U.N. Security Council

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had sought to give a speech condemning the U.S. assassination of Qassem Suleimani.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a meeting at the United Nations Offices in Geneva on Oct. 29, 2019. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is barring Iran’s top diplomat from entering the United States this week to address the United Nations Security Council about the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top military official in Baghdad, violating the terms of a 1947 headquarters agreement requiring Washington to permit foreign officials into the country to conduct U.N. business.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif requested a visa on Dec. 20 to enter the United States to attend a Jan. 9 Security Council meeting on the importance of upholding the U.N. Charter, according to Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations. The request, according to Miryousefi, was made one day after the council meeting was announced. 

The Thursday meeting was to provide Tehran’s top diplomat with his first opportunity to directly address the world community since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a top Iraqi militia leader, among others.

The Iranian government was awaiting word on the visa Monday when a Trump administration official phoned U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to inform him that the United States would not allow Zarif into the country, according to the Washington-based diplomatic source.

“Last night, we were informed by the UN that based on the information it received from the US, FM Zarif’s visa to address the Security Council will not be issued,” Miryousefi told Foreign Policy by email. But he said Iran has “not received any communication about it from the US mission.”

The US should abide by the 1947 Host agreement between the U.S. and U.N. that states: ‘When visas are required … they shall be granted without charge and as promptly as possible,’ he added.

Trump’s national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, suggested that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made the decision to block Zarif’s entry into the United States. I don’t think Secretary Pompeo thought that this was the right time for Mr. Zarif to come to the United States, he said.

Pompeo declined to say whether he had barred Zarif’s entry into the United States, telling reporters in Washington that we don’t comment on visa matters.

But he insisted that the United States will always comply with our obligations under the U.N. requirements and the Headquarters Agreement, and we will do so in this particular instance and more broadly every day.

It remained unclear what legal basis Pompeo had for blocking Zarif’s visit, or whether the department’s legal department had produced an opinion indicating such a move was consistent with U.S. treaty obligations.

Zarif suggested that Pompeo may have dodged the legal issue by claiming there was insufficient time to process his request. Pompeo, he said, informed the U.N. chief Monday that the State Department did not have time to issue a visa, according to a report by the semi-official Iranian news agency ISNA, which was cited by Agence France-Presse. The secretary-general responded by saying that it is Iran’s right to take part in this session.

The move comes as the United States and Iran engaged in tit-for-tat recriminations over the killing of Suleimani. Trump tweeted over the weekend that if Iran retaliates for Suleimani’s death, it will face U.S. attacks on 52 targets—the number of hostages held by Iran in 1979. “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have … targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” he said. “The USA wants no more threats!”

Tehran, meanwhile, announced Sunday it was ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium as part of its 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of in 2018 and then followed up by reimposing tough sanctions on Iran. 

But even before the current crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent months had sought to restrict the ability of Zarif—a skilled debater who has studied in the United States and has extensive contacts with American journalists—to make his case to the American public during previous visits to the United States.

In July, the United States restricted his movement to a few blocks in Manhattan and Queens, preventing Zarif from making his regular visits to TV studios, universities, and think tanks. Pompeo defended the decision, noting that American diplomats lack freedom to travel in Iran.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the revolution. Iran is permitted to maintain a diplomatic outpost in midtown Manhattan to conduct U.N. business.

On the eve of the U.N. General Assembly debate in September 2019, Pompeo hinted that he might bar the Iranian delegation, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif, from entering the United States, saying that Iran was responsible for carrying out an earlier drone and missile strike on two critical Saudi Arabian oil installations.

“The actions that the Iranian regime took violated the U.N. Charter,” Pompeo said at the time. “If you’re connected to a foreign terrorist organization, it seems to me it would be a reasonable thing to think about whether they ought to be prevented to attend a meeting which is about peace.”

But U.N. legal experts question whether Pompeo has the legal authority to bar the Iranians. And the United States relented and granted the Iranians visas at the time.

“Any foreign minister is entitled to address the Security Council at any time and the United States is obligated to provide access to the U.N. headquarters district,” said Larry Johnson, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general. Under the terms of the U.S. agreement with the United Nations, “they are absolutely obligated to let him in.

Johnson, who currently serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School, noted that the U.S. Congress, however, passed legislation in August 1947, the so-called Public Law 80-357, that granted the U.S. government the authority to bar foreign individuals invited by the United Nations to attend meetings at its New York City headquarters if they are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security. But Johnson said the U.S. law would require the individual be “expected to commit some act against the U.S. national security interest while here in the United States.”

A spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general also declined comment.

It is not the first time, however, that the United States has prevented a foreign adversary from entering the country to attend a U.N. gathering.

In 1988, the Reagan administration barred the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat from addressing the U.N. General Assembly on the grounds that he posed a threat to U.S. security. At the time, Patricia M. Byrne, the U.S. representative in the host country committee, said the United States “reserves to us … the right to bar the entry of those who represent a threat to our security.”

In response, the U.N. General Assembly traveled to Geneva to hear Arafat’s speech.

When the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, facing a diplomatic rebellion at his country’s U.N. mission in March 2011, tried to send a trusted ally, Ali Treki, a visa to take over the renegade mission, the State Department stalled. Eventually, the senior Libyan diplomat defected himself.

Update, Jan. 7, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect statements by U.S. and Iranian officials confirming the U.S. decision not to grant a visa for the Iranian foreign minister to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting this week.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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