Small World: Congressional ‘diplomacy’

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Several months ago, Iran notified the United States that it was appointing Hamid Abu Talebi as its ambassador to the United Nations in New York.  Several days ago, the United States replied that it would not issue a visa to admit the ambassador.

In the interim, Congress got wind of the appointment and, led by Texas senator and presidential aspirant Ted Cruz, voted to ban visas for all “terrorists,” i.e., Mr. Abu Talebi. Both Houses voted unanimously for the resolution; President Obama acted to deny the visa before the resolution reached his desk.

A bit of background: Abu Talebi is a first-rank diplomat for Iran, fluent in several languages and having served as ambassador in four major posts. The U.S. problem arises from his acting briefly as interpreter for the “students,” who seized the American embassy in November 1979 when foreign visitors came to the place. He was not part of the group who took over the embassy and was not in Tehran at the time. On at least one occasion in the past, he was issued a U.S. visa to visit New York on official business.

Angered by the rejection, Iran has now appealed to the U.N. administration asserting that the host (the United States) for the organization is obliged to allow every country’s chosen representative to attend to its business there. Washington shows no sign of budging.

What do we learn from this episode? Several things:

First, some pundits have commented that Iran’s illegal abuse of international law and of the U.S. government in the hostage crisis deeply scarred the minds of Americans. Certainly, Iran wins no popularity contests hereabouts. But, I doubt that many Americans now feel actively bitter about Iran; most were either not born or not yet conscious in 1979-80. Yet when a congressional vote is between Iran (coupled with terrorism) on one hand and international law and the (distorted) facts on the other, what congressman or woman would vote for the former? None. Profiles in courage are pretty dim on Capitol Hill.

Second, we have serious business with Iran that may be thrown off the rails by the congressional vote. If negotiations now underway succeed, the alleged threat of an Iranian nukes will be taken off the agenda. If the United States succeeds in that endeavor, there is a chance that Iran can be induced to cooperate on other regional problems where Washington could use its help, i.e., Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and drugs.

Ending Iran’s isolation and the sanctions against it would also benefit its middle class and put pressure on the clerical regime to respond to demands for liberalization of political and social rules. Offending Iran’s national pride (it is a big thing) could strengthen conservatives and set back moves to loosen the mullahs’ tight controls.

In rejecting the ambassador, the United States creates the impression that it wishes to override the rules of the international community, creating an impression of arrogance that is hard to deny. (Remember back in 1988 when PLO leader Arafat was invited to speak to the United Nations and the United States would not admit him? The United Nations packed up and moved temporarily to Geneva to hear his speech.)

We need a functioning United Nations to deal with many, many international issues, which are beyond our reach alone. We should build up the organization, not weaken it by manipulation.

Finally (almost), looking at the actual situation, ambassador Abu Talebi did not merit this treatment. It was unfair to him and to Iran. Facts ought to count for something — even when American politics are at play.

Which leads to the last lesson: The United States Congress is ill equipped to conduct foreign relations. The members simply do not have the skills and detailed knowledge to deal as a group with complex problems. There have been occasions, I readily acknowledge, when senators blocked an administration that was leading this nation to disaster — Vietnam was a powerful example. But that was an exception to the rule.

Rejecting Iran’s ambassadorial nomination is not a case of Congress blocking administration overreach. Rather, it is interference in Executive Branch business, dictated by enemies of Iran (Israel, Saudi Arabia) and inflated by the persisting conflict between our political parties. It shouldn’t be that way.

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, was in charge of the State Department’s Iran desk during the revolution and hostage crisis.

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