After lots of huffing and puffing, the junior Senator from Texas can finally lay claim to having actually passed a law. On Friday, President Obama signed a bill sponsored by Ted Cruz that would ban any United Nations ambassadors who have “engaged in terrorist activity” from entering the U.S.. The bill was crafted primarily to sink the prospects of Iran’s proposed UN ambassador, and passed both chambers of Congress unanimously.
In March, Iran announced its intention to appoint Hamid Aboutalebi, a diplomat and top advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, as the country’s UN ambassador. However, that quickly ruffled feathers in the U.S., because in 1979, Aboutalebi worked as a translator for the group of Iranian protesters that took the U.S. Embassy hostage in Iran for 444 days. The White House soon denied Aboutalebi’s Visa request, and Cruz — along New York Senator Chuck Schumer — proposed legislation that would block anybody deemed to have engaged in terrorist activity from obtaining a U.S. visa.
Obama signed the bill, as vetoing it would have been a political disaster, with the hope that doing so would compel Iran to choose a different ambassador. If the country stands by Aboutalebi’s appointment, the Obama administration will have two potential problems on its hands.
For one, blocking Aboutalebi from entering the U.S. could imperil the already-precarious negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, which have been unprecedentedly productive considering the historically acrimonious relations between the U.S. and Iran. Secondly, when the UN was being formed in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. signed a treaty agreeing to grant entry visas to all UN representatives in exchange for having the body’s permanent headquarters located in New York. As such, blocking Aboutalebi's admittance would violate an international treaty.
But Obama left himself a bit of wiggle room. When signing Cruz’s bill, he noted that Article II of the Constitution grants the president unilateral authority to accept or reject ambassadors. Because the Cruz bill could “interfere” with that authority, the president attached a signing statement deeming that the law was “advisory” and non-binding. That may sound unprecedented, but it isn’t: President George H.W. Bush did the same while signing a similar piece of legislation in 1990.
As far as Aboutalebi goes, he admits to having worked with the hostage takers in 1979, but says that he acted only as a translator and negotiator, and wasn’t involved with taking any hostages.
Cruz has yet to comment on Obama’s decision to treat his law as non-binding, but he presumably isn’t very happy about it.