Yesterday the US broke nearly 70 years of protocol and announced that the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations would not receive a visa for the US – in effect stopping him from taking up his post in New York. This is the first time the US has ever done this, and Iran has reacted angrily. The reason? Hamid Abutalebi was involved in the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran back in 1979. So what was that seizure? Why are these two countries locked in such dislike? And can the US actually do this?
To understand the anger between these two nations, it’s necessary to go back to 1953 and one of the most disastrous actions the US ever undertook in the Middle East. At the time the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, was carrying out reforms to reduce the power of the Shah and to nationalise the oil wealth of the country. The profits of this oil had been going to Western companies for over 50 years. The US and UK decided that this was unacceptable, and organised a coup. It was planned by the two governments, organised by the CIA, and carried out by the CIA and MI6’s local Iranian agents. The result – Iran ended up returning to absolute monarchy under the Shah, who cracked down on all opposition and set up the US trained secret police SAVAK, which tortured and murdered thousands of Iranians. More than any other event this turned public opinion in the Middle East against the US.
Fast forward 26 years to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah. Even after two decades, many Iranians still despised the US for their support of his secular and strict government. A group of students decided to take over the American Embassy in Tehran, and managed to storm the building and take 52 Americans hostage. This broke one of the most important international principles – that embassies are completely protected. The Americans were held hostage for 444 days, and were treated badly, often being paraded blindfolded in front of angry crowds outside the embassy. The US attempted a rescue mission which ended with the accidental death of eight US soldiers. The whole event, ending effectively in a ransom payment, was a huge humiliation for the US, and has left a lasting anger.
That this anger is still there was seen this week, when Iran announced that its new ambassador to the UN would be a man who as a student (while not involved in the actual hostage taking) was a translator between the hostage takers and the Americans. Iran must have known that this would come as an insult to the US, and Congress quickly passed a law that would stop Abutalebi from entering the country. President Obama hasn’t signed the law, but the White House has let it be known that he won’t receive a visa.
The problem is that the US isn’t actually allowed to do this. Their agreement with the UN states that the US will not stand in the way of any representative to the United Nations. This action will lead to debate about how much influence the country has over the United Nations Iran is not going to let the matter go, and will protest through the United Nations. However, letting Abutalebi come to New York would be extremely unpopular with ordinary Americans, and the Republicans would use the issue to attack Obama.
The question now is whether this will affect the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which have so far been more successful than any previous talks. The negotiations are extremely fragile, and there are hardliners on both sides who want them to fail. It will take patience and goodwill on both sides to continue talking – something that has always been in short supply when it comes to the US and Iran.
With the situation in Eastern Ukraine moving so fast, a blog post on the crisis will have to wait until Wednesday. Meanwhile, why not keep updated by clicking the ‘Follow’ button to the right, or following me on Twitter @YW_Explained