Why Iran President Raisi's upcoming UN trip became a headache for Biden

  • 11 Aug 2022

Lobby groups are going full throttle to pressure the US government to ban Raisi from entering the country, citing his involvement in the 1988 capital punishments.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi reviews the army troops parade commemorating National Army Day in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini Monday, April 18, 2022 ( AP )

Critics of the Iranian government in Washington intend to restrict President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this fall. 

Lobby groups on Capitol Hill that reflect the views of the Republican Party have called on President Joe Biden's administration to deny the Iranian head of the executive branch and his entire delegation the visas they must obtain to attend meetings at UN headquarters in New York.

The underlying argument in favour of the visa restrictions is that Raisi, as deputy prosecutor of Tehran in 1988, allegedly participated in an execution commission that sentenced, according to Western estimates, some five thousand people to capital punishment on political grounds. People were deprived of their lives "without the right to appeal or a fair trial," human rights activists and critics say, pointing out that the former head of the judiciary continued his persecution in later years.

The Iranian government has rejected such accusations, stressing that only those "counterrevolutionary" activists who had staged an armed uprising had received capital punishment. But the US disagrees with the Iranian regime.

In 2019, in an era of "maximum pressure" policy under former President Donald Trump's administration, the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control put Raisi's name on its sanctions lists.

For Tehran's opponents, this becomes a formal reason to demand new restrictions on the President of the Islamic Republic. The mobilisation comes from organisations affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political wing of a dissident left-wing radical group, as well as the Republican line.

The White House has already been called upon to respond by senators led by Tom Cotton, as well as by former Trump administration officials who expect to return to power in the post-Biden era.

In line with Arafat

The 1947 agreement between the US and the UN on the location and operation of the international organisation's headquarters imposes quite explicit obligations on Washington to ensure the rights of entry, movement and residence of those who have been invited to New York. However, the US has always had the option of saying "no" to those visitors who could hypothetically be labelled as a "threat to national security".

The most scandalous case was the Ronald Reagan administration's refusal to allow Yasser Arafat to attend the UNGA in 1988. Secretary of State George Shultz did not approve travel documents for the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, accusing him of involvement in terrorist organisations. The initiative was largely pushed by anti-Iranian lobbyists and won the approval of Congress. After such restrictive measures, the UNGA session was forced to "move" to Switzerland.

Although denying visas to Iranians has been a common practice for US officials, the likelihood of their testing on the top leadership of the Islamic Republic is still a new experience. As a rule, the targets of such restrictions have been lower-ranking statesmen. For example, two years ago, such sanctions were imposed on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and in 2014 on the newly appointed Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic to the United Nations Hamid Abutalebi.

At the level of domestic debate, the ban on the Iranian president visiting New York was indeed being worked out, clearly by Trump’s team. One of their participants in that debate, Richard Goldberg, who was in the White House's National Security Council, is now emphasizing the need to refuse hospitality to Raisi in part because of growing suspicions in the American intelligence community that Iranian operatives have formed a subversive network within the United States.

In the spotlight

A recent poll by the think tank Data for Progress showed that two-thirds of American voters (67 percent) support a new nuclear deal with Iran, including, oddly enough, 56 percent of the Republican camp. The electorate also mostly prefers that the Iranian atom problem, regardless of which path it has taken in recent months, is solved by diplomacy rather than a forceful scenario: 78 percent of respondents versus 12 percent.

Interestingly, the majority also supports a Congress which allows the president the flexibility to negotiate with Iran, rather than hampering diplomatic efforts by pushing party ideologemes.

This pre-election context makes it doubtful that the White House will decide to impose restrictive visa measures against Raisi, whose visit could also be an opportunity to activate feedback channels between the countries. Another question is whether the situation strengthens the credibility of the US sanctions mechanism, in which reservations regularly have to be made to have any kind of dialogue. In addition, what creates intrigue is how the lobbyists of Iran's political opponents will behave.

Nor should we forget that any “hawkish” debate in the US could exacerbate the anxiety of the Iranian establishment, parts of which tend to criticize Raisi and his negotiators for the substance of the nuclear dossier meetings.

Last year, Iran's president succeeded in easing the tension when he refused to go to New York because of the epidemiological situation, but now his willingness to attend a UNGA session puts his diplomacy in the spotlight of critics in Tehran and leaves little or no room for retreat.