On April 11, 2014, the United States informed Iran and the United Nations that it would not grant a visa to Hamid Aboutalebi, a diplomat whom Iran had selected to serve as a new permanent representative to the United Nations. (1) Before beginning his diplomatic career, Aboutalebi had served as a translator for the Muslim Students Following the Imam's Line, the revolutionary Iranian group that seized the U.S. embassy in 1979. (2) Aboutalebi claimed that his involvement with the hostage crisis was rooted in "humanitarian motivations," helping, for example, with "translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released." (3) He noted that he was absent during the seizure of the embassy and that his involvement only began when he "accompanied ... the special representative of the Pope." (4) The United States declined to describe its view of Aboutalebi's involvement in detail (5) but took the position that "given his role in the events of 1979, which clearly matter profoundly to the American people, it would be unacceptable for the United States to grant this visa." (6)
Iran has argued that the United States' refusal to grant Aboutalebi's visa violates the United States' obligations under the 1947 United Nations Headquarters Agreement (Headquarters Agreement). (7) Article IV of the Headquarters Agreement provides, in relevant part:
The federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of ... representatives of Members ... of the United Nations [and other specified categories of persons]....
The provisions of Section 11 shall be applicable irrespective of the relations existing between the Governments of the persons referred to in that section and the Government of the United States.
(a) Laws and regulations in force in the United States regarding the entry of aliens shall not be applied in such manner as to interfere with the privileges referred to in Section 11. When visas are required for persons referred to in that Section, they shall be granted without charge and as promptly as possible.
(d) Except as provided above in this section ... the United States retains full control and authority over the entry of persons or property into the territory of the United States and the conditions under which persons may remain or reside there.
(f) The United Nations shall, subject to the foregoing provisions of this section, have the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit entry of persons ... into the headquarters district and to prescribe the conditions under which persons may remain or reside there. (8)
The U.S. Department of State spokesperson acknowledged these obligations but also stated that, under U.S. law, individuals might nevertheless be deemed ineligible for a visa on account of security, terrorism, and foreign policy concerns:
[A]s the host nation of the United Nations, except for limited exceptions, the United States is generally obligated under Section 11 of the United Nations Headquarters Agreement not to impede the transit to and from the UN Headquarters. And that, of course, means admitting the chosen representatives of member-states into the United Nations--into the United States, excuse me--for the purposes of representing their country at the UN. As you also know, all visas are of course evaluated in accordance with all applicable U.S. law and procedure. But broadly speaking, among other grounds, there are --they are not exempt from inadmissibility provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act, Sections--to be specific--212(a)(3)(A), (B), and (C) for security and related grounds. And that includes security, terrorism, and foreign policy concerns. So there are a broad range of, broadly speaking, reasons that a visa could be deemed ineligible. (9) As the Department of State indicated, the United States has on previous occasions asserted that it may, consistent with the Headquarters Agreement, decline to provide visas to certain individuals when they implicate the "security" of the United States. (10) But these denials have been controversial, especially as applied to individuals who do not pose a current threat to the security of the United States.
When the U.S. Congress approved the Headquarters Agreement in 1947, it included the following statement in the joint resolution:
Sec. 6. Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States other than the headquarters district and its immediate vicinity ... and such areas as it is reasonably necessary to traverse in transit between the same and foreign countries. (11)
Section 6 has formed the starting point for subsequent debates about the extent to which the United States, pursuant to the Headquarters Agreement, may refuse visas to particular individuals.
In 1953, the United States denied visas to representatives of two nongovernmental organizations that the UN...