U.S. Breaks International Law If It Refuses Iran's Top Diplomat Entry for U.N., Experts Say

The United States would be breaking international law if it refused to grant Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif a visa to enter the country and attend a United Nations meeting in New York this Friday, experts say.

After a number of news outlets reported Monday that President Donald Trump's administration would deny Zarif entry, the Iranian diplomat himself confirmed Tuesday the reports in an interview with CBS News. He said U.S. officials were turning him away "because they fear someone will go there and tell the truth to the American people." Zarif was expected to address the U.N. Security Council and speak with journalists regarding the U.S.' assassination Thursday of top Iranian military leader, Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq.

Zarif said he would still find an audience as "the world is not limited to New York" and "you can speak with American people from Tehran too." It remained unclear, however, whether or not the U.S. had formally refused Zarif.

"Last night, we were informed by the U.N. that based on the information it received from the U.S., FM Zarif's visa to address the security council will not be issued, but we have not received any communication about it from the U.S. mission," Iranian U.N. mission spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi told Newsweek Tuesday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters earlier Tuesday "we don't comment on visa matters," but argued that the Trump administration "will always comply with our obligations under the U.N. requirements and the Headquarters Agreement, and we will do so in this particular instance and more broadly every day."

The 1947 U.N. Headquarters Agreement Act secured New York as the host city for the international body's main building and requires the U.S. to allow access to diplomats. Washington has nonetheless long reserved the right to block individuals of its own choosing, but experts such as Jose Alvarez, Herbert and Rose Rubin Professor of International Law, at the New York University School of Law, told Newsweek this could not be justified.

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Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends the 74th United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2019 in New York City. The top Iranian diplomat sought to advance President Hassan Rouhani's bid to for regional countries to join a Coalition for HOPE, or Hormuz Peace Endeavor. Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images

"The U.S. is indeed obligated to issue a visa to all U.N. invitees under the HQ Agreement," Alvarez told Newsweek. "This has been the subject of considerable contestation in the past but the law (treaty) is clear."

"Any legitimate U.S. national security concerns can be handled as they have in the past (as with respect to U.N. invitations to Palestinian leaders)—severe transit restrictions on those issued the visa to travel to and from the U.N. (usually 25-mile radius from Columbus Circle with to and from area airports)," he added.

Zarif and his delegation in New York were subject to restrictions limiting their movement to just six blocks from their mission and the U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan ahead of last September's U.N. General Assembly. Zarif ultimately got his visa after speculation then too that the Trump administration may not grant it.

Still, both Iran and Russia accused the U.S. at the time of denying visas to some other members of their delegations. Under Trump's predecessor, former President Barack Obama, the U.S. also denied Iran's then-U.N. ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi a visa in April 2014 for his alleged role the hostage crisis that erupted when Iranian revolutionaries stormed Washington's embassy in Tehran in 1979. The snub came even as Washington and Tehran were engaged in nuclear talks.

The resulting deal, finalized in 2015, saw a brief warming in relations between the two longtime foes as China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. agreed to grant Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the Islamic Republic severely curbing its nuclear activities. In 2018, Trump unilaterally left the accord, imposing new, strict sanctions on Iran as he accused the country of sponsoring militant groups abroad and pursuing destabilizing missile development.

The rest of the nuclear deal's signatories continue to support the embattled arrangement, even as Europe struggled to maintain its end of the bargain under threat of U.S. sanctions, and Iran drastically reduced its own commitments in the wake of Soleimani's slaying—the international legality of which has also been widely called into question. Kevin Jon Heller, an associate professor of public international law at the University of Amsterdam, said that the Trump administration's potential refusal to grant Zarif a visa and other violations of global agreements have become an unfortunate hallmark of this presidency.

"There is no question that the Trump administration threatens the international rules-based order," Heller, who is also a professor of law at Australian National University, told Newsweek.

"International law has always suffered from a lack of effective enforcement mechanisms, especially when the rule-breaker is a powerful state like the U.S., which has a permanent veto in the Security Council," he added. "But the Trump administration is different than its predecessors, which by and large tried to offer international-law justifications for their actions (torture, drones, the invasion of Iraq, etc), even if those justifications were often not particularly convincing."

As for the Iranian foreign minister's status, Heller says he does "not believe the U.S. has any grounds for refusing to issue Zarif a visa for the upcoming meeting of the Security Council, because he is a formal legal representative of Iran." The expert points to two specific sources.

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Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat gives a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 13, 1988. The U.S. barred Arafat from entering the United States and speaking in New York at the U.N. Headquarters. Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba/Getty Images

The first is Article 105(2) of the U.N. Charter, which states: "Representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall... enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connexion with the Organization"⁠—something Zarif cannot do without entry.

Secondly, Section of 11 of the 1947 Headquarters Agreement, provides that "[t]he federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of (1) representatives of Members... on official business." Last time Zarif was in town, he promoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's bid for a Coalition for HOPE, or Hormuz Peace Endeavor, in both meetings with journalists, including Newsweek, and at the General Assembly itself.

Though the situation in the Persian Gulf has only grown tenser and ties between Washington and Tehran worse, Section 12 of the same agreement specifically notes that the U.S. must allow travel "irrespective of the relations existing between the Governments of the persons referred to in that section and the Government of the United States."

As Alvarez earlier alluded to, the U.S. has a history of refusing its treaty obligations on a self-proclaimed national security exception. In 1988, the outgoing administration of President Ronald Reagan denied Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat a visa to enter the U.S. "in order to safeguard its own security" ahead of that year's General Assembly—forcing the international gathering to host its meeting in the Swiss capital of Geneva as Washington refused to budge.

"This is, of course, the problem," Heller told Newsweek. "The U.N. could and no doubt will insist that the U.S. grant Zarif a visa, but there is little it can do if the U.S. refuses."

"It is possible, of course, that the U.N. would move out of the U.S. completely if the U.S. ever became much too aggressive about denying visas to foreign representatives it doesn't like," he added. "But that is obviously extraordinarily unlikely."