Iran Escalates Dispute Over U.N. Envoy

UNITED NATIONS — Iran’s increasingly angry protests over the American decision to not grant a visa to its new United Nations ambassador, and the uncertainty over how far the dispute will go, have not only rubbed feelings on both sides raw. They have laid bare the limits of global law when its provisions clash with the interests of the host country, the United States.

International jurists, diplomats and other experts familiar with United Nations history said on Tuesday that even if Iran does have legal grounds to argue that its new ambassador’s rights have been violated, there is little it can do. Some suggested the United States might even have sympathy and international law on its side.

The Obama administration announced on Friday that it would not grant a visa to the ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, whose application had been pending for months. Mr. Aboutalebi, an experienced diplomat, has admitted he was a translator for the Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran who seized the American Embassy and took hostages in 1979, a role that, however minor, made him toxic politically in the United States.

Neither country has backed down over Mr. Aboutalebi, threatening to complicate efforts by both to defuse other pressing issues in their 35 years of estranged relations, most notably the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Iran escalated the pressure on Tuesday, with an urgently scheduled meeting to complain formally to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s legal counsel. The Iranians also requested and received a commitment from a special General Assembly committee that handles complaints about the host nation to schedule an emergency session next Tuesday.

“The denial of visa to a representative of a U.N. Member-State is in contravention of the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter including the principles of sovereign equality of states and respect for their sovereignty and political independence,” the Iranian mission said in a letter sent late Monday night to the 19-nation committee, known as the Committee on Relations with the Host Country.

The committee is led by Cyprus and includes the United States. While the committee does not include Iran, it has other members that have clashed with the host, notably China, Cuba, Libya and Russia.

Regardless of the sentiments among committee members, it can only make recommendations, with no power to override an American decision to not give Mr. Aboutalebi a visa. “The bottom line is there is no enforcement mechanism,” a diplomat at the United Nations said. “It’s not as if he will arrive at J.F.K. and be taken in by U.N. security and barged through.”

The committee could also refer the matter to the General Assembly. Whether Iran would win a majority of votes among the membership would remain to be seen. Even if a majority sided with Iran, there is no expectation that the United States would rescind the decision.

“What would they expect the U.S. government to do — say, ‘O.K., we were kidding’ ?” said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Washington offices of the RAND Corporation. He said Iran would be better off to “just let it drop quietly.”

Mr. Ban’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, declined to speculate on what might happen next. “We’ll have to wait and see what the committee does and what the committee decides,” he told reporters.

Iran’s basic argument is that the United States has violated the Headquarters Agreement signed when it agreed to host the world body in New York. The 1947 agreement obliges the host to allow access to foreign diplomatic representatives, even from countries the United States dislikes. But the United States also enacted a law that year to carry out the agreement, in which the host reserved the right to “safeguard its own security” by denying visas to foreign visitors to the United Nations deemed to be a threat.

Larry D. Johnson, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School who was the United Nations deputy legal counsel from 2006 to 2008, said numerous clashes ensued over the years between the organization and host over the visa issue. Eventually, he said, the United States and United Nations came to an understanding that if the United States objected to a diplomat’s visa application, the United Nations would inform officials of that diplomat’s government, and “it’s up to them to decide to make a fuss or challenge or not.”

Mr. Johnson said that “supposedly many times the other country doesn’t insist and it goes away quietly — none of this is publicized. And sometimes the U.S. delays issuing the visa until it’s too late.”

In a 1988 case, when the United States denied a visa to Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time, the United Nations meeting was moved from New York to Geneva.

Legal experts said Mr. Aboutalebi’s case was highly unusual.

John B. Bellinger III, a partner at the Washington office of Arnold & Porter and a former legal adviser to the State Department and National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, said Iran runs a risk of embarrassment by pressing the issue, because sympathy with the American side in the 1979 hostage crisis remains potent.

“It is not clear that other countries will want to make an issue over the denial of a visa to Aboutalebi, who played at least some role, even if small, in the most egregious violation of diplomatic law and the security of diplomatic personnel in modern times,” Mr. Bellinger wrote in Lawfare, a legal blog.

Jordan J. Paust, an international law expert at the University of Houston, said the United States could also rest its case on another aspect of international law: human rights. Under the 1980 International Court of Justice ruling in the Tehran embassy seizure, Professor Paust said, the court found that the arbitrary detention and mistreatment of American hostages violated human rights law and other international law.

Under articles of the United Nations Charter, he said, the United States could argue that denial of Mr. Aboutalebi’s visa request is necessary in this case to enforce “universal respect for, and observance of,” human rights. He also said the Charter specifies that United States obligations under the Charter “must prevail over those under any other international agreement, like the Headquarters Agreement.”