Trump Blocks Iran FM From Addressing UN Security Council

January 7th, 2020 - by Jason Ditz /

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

Jason Ditz /

 (January 6, 2020) — To avoid a speech at the UN Security Council critical of President Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassam Soleimani, the US has refused to allow Iranian FM Javad Zarif to enter the country for the purposes of conducting UN business.

Zarif has been planning to visit the UN for weeks, and had requested the visa back in December. The 1947 UN Headquarters treaty obliges the US not to “impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district” for officials invited to the UN on official business. This means the US is overtly violating this deal.

There is no legal basis for what the US is doing in this case. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was informed by the Trump Administration that they won’t allow Zarif into the country to attend his already scheduled UN speech.

This follows months of the US increasingly restricting the movements of Zarif and other Iranians involved in the UN delegation. Most of the restrictions were overtly intended to prevent Zarif from reaching TV studios within New York City.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously threatened to bar Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani from the UN General Assembly, arguing that they are “connected to a foreign terrorist organization.” UN officials have pointed out that the treaty does not allow Pompeo to make decisions to exclude officials from a UN member nation to address the UN Security Council.

This extra-legal move is not totally unprecedented. In 1988, the Reagan Administration blocked Yasser Arafat from addressing the UN General Assembly. The UN responded by moving the entire General Assembly to Geneva, Switzerland for the speech. 

It would be difficult to try to relocate the UN Security Council over one speech by Zarif, but if the US makes a habit out of blocking its critics from the UN, in violation of the Headquarters treaty, the UN must inevitably consider relocating out of the US entirely for the sake of its operation. 

Administration Blocks Iran’s Top Diplomat From Addressing the UN

Robbie Gramer / Foreign Policy

(January 6, 2020) — 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 US 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 UN business, according to three diplomatic sources.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif requested a visa a “few weeks ago” to enter the United States to attend a Jan. 9 Security Council meeting on the importance of upholding the UN Charter, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the matter. The Thursday meeting was to provide Tehran’s top diplomat with his first opportunity to directly address the world community since US 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 UN 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.

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 US 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, US 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 UN business.

On the eve of the UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 UN headquarters district,” said Larry Johnson, a former UN assistant secretary-general. Under the terms of the US 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 US Congress, however, passed legislation in August 1947, the so-called Public Law 80-357, that granted the US 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 US national security. But Johnson said the US law would require the individual be “expected to commit some act against the US national security interest while here in the United States.”

The State Department and the US Mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment, or a request to explain what the US legal basis is for barring Zarif from entering the country.

A spokesperson for the UN 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 UN gathering.

In 1988, the Reagan administration barred the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat from addressing the UN General Assembly on the grounds that he posed a threat to US security. At the time, Patricia M. Byrne, the US 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 UN 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 UN 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.

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