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Iran asks for U.N. committee meeting on U.S. ban on envoy

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iran requested on Monday a special meeting of a U.N. committee on the United States' refusal to grant a visa to Tehran's new U.N. ambassador appointee, describing the decision as a dangerous precedent that could harm international diplomacy.

The United States said on Friday it would not grant a visa to Hamid Abutalebi because of his links to the 1979-1981 Tehran hostage crisis when radical Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Abutalebi has said that he acted only as a translator.

"This decision of the U.S. government has indeed negative implications for multilateral diplomacy and will create a dangerous precedence and affect adversely the work of intergovernmental organizations and activities of their Member-States," Iran's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Hossein Dehghani wrote to the U.N. Committee on Relations with the Host Country.

"It requires to be well addressed in the Committee on Relations with the Host Country. The Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran requests that the committee addresses this issue in an extraordinary and urgent manner," he said.

Cyprus U.N. Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou, who chairs the 19-member committee dealing with issues including immigration and security, said a meeting would likely be held next week.

"They have specified that they do not request any action on the part of the committee. They simply wish to brief us for the time being at least," Emiliou said of Iran's request.

In the letter Iran expressed its "serious concern over the clear indication of refusal of granting visa by the Host Country authorities in breach of their legal obligations under international law and the Headquarters Agreement."

Iran also asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to circulate the letter to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly.

Officials, diplomats and academics could not recall past cases of the United States denying a U.N. ambassador's visa.

Under a 1947 "headquarters agreement," the United States is generally required to allow access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats. But Washington says it can deny visas for "security, terrorism, and foreign policy" reasons.

A 1947 Joint Resolution of Congress said nothing should be seen as "diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely control the entrance of aliens" into any part of the United States aside from the U.N. headquarters.

President Barack Obama had come under strong pressure not to allow Abutalebi into the country to take up his position. Former hostages raised objections to Abutalebi, and a normally divided Congress passed legislation that would ban him.

The White House is still reviewing the legislation, which would bar any U.N. representative deemed to be behind acts of terrorism or espionage against the United States. It would need Obama's signature to become law.

ANOTHER DENIED VISA CASE - ARAFAT

Tehran has steadfastly stuck by its choice for U.N. ambassador, describing Abutalebi as a seasoned diplomat. He has served as ambassador to Italy, Belgium and Australia and is not known as a hardliner or for having staunch anti-Western views.

Iran had said on Saturday it would take action against Washington at the United Nations.

In 1988, Washington denied a visa for Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who wanted to address a U.N. debate on Palestine. U.S. secretary of state at the time, George Schultz, said Arafat was denied entry because he condoned terrorist attacks on Americans.

U.N. lawyers reported to the Committee on Relations with the Host Country that the United States was obligated to grant the visa under the U.N. headquarters' agreement.

The lawyers also said the headquarters agreement "does not contain a reservation of the right to bar the entry of those who represent, in the view of the host country, a threat to its security."

The headquarters agreement says disputes should be referred to a tribunal of three arbitrators: one each chosen by the United Nations and United States and the third agreed by both or appointed by the International Court of Justice president.

This dispute mechanism was used in 1988 after the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987 declared the PLO a terrorist group and outlawed it from operating in the United States. Under this law the United States tried to shut down the PLO U.N. mission.

The United Nations declared the bid a "clear violation" of the headquarters agreement and tried to start the dispute settlement process with the United States.

The United States refused to take part in the arbitration with the United Nations, saying it would "not serve a useful purpose." The United Nations then requested a legal advisory from the International Court of Justice, which found that Washington was obligated to enter into arbitration.

The PLO also took legal action in the United States and Washington dropped its bid to shut down the PLO U.N. mission only when a U.S. Federal Court judge ruled that the mission's status was protected by the host country agreement.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Moghtader in Dubai; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Louise Ireland, Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad Zargham)

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