(Adds Abutalebi quotes on visiting U.S. in 1994, role during hostage crisis, paragraphs 14-16)
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, March 31 (Reuters) - Former U.S. embassy workers held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 are outraged that Tehran has selected a new U.N. envoy who may have played a role in the 444-day crisis and want him barred from U.S. territory, lawyers for the ex-hostages said on Monday.
The fact that Hamid Abutalebi, a veteran diplomat who has held key European postings in the past, has been selected by President Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new ambassador to the United Nations has been well known among U.N. delegations for months.
But his potential role in the hostage crisis, first reported by Bloomberg News over the weekend, has led some former hostages to call on the administration of President Barack Obama to reject his diplomatic visa application.
"It's a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi's visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.," former hostage Barry Rosen said in a statement provided to Reuters by Alan Madison, spokesman for and member of the legal team representing the former hostages in their compensation claims.
"It may be a precedent but if the President and the Congress don't condemn this act by the Islamic Republic, then our captivity and suffering for 444 days at the hands of Iran was for nothing," he said. "He can never set foot on American soil."
Madison said other hostages agreed with Rosen about Abutalebi, though he admitted very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi's role in the hostage-taking.
"All we know is that he was involved," he said. "After 34 years, it's difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it's our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran."
Tom Lankford, the hostages' lead attorney, went further: "At a time when the 52 American Hostages and their families remain without reparations and relief, the idea that one of their self-styled kidnappers and torturers would be allowed to receive a visa, enter the United States and then hold himself out at the rank of U.N. Ambassador makes a mockery of the horrific acts he and Iran perpetrated."
"It is yet another slap in the face of the brave Americans who were mentally and physically abused for 444 days. The President, the Secretary of State and the Congress should not permit this to happen," Lankford added.
The United States, which severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980 during the hostage crisis, is required to allow U.N. diplomats to come to New York under its host country agreement with the United Nations. It does, however, reserve the right to refuse visas to those seeking to work as diplomats in the United Nations.
'HE IS A PROGRESSIVE'
Since Rouhani took office in August, Washington and Tehran have taken tentative steps toward improving relations, above all through high-level bilateral negotiations on the sidelines of talks on Iran's nuclear program between Tehran and major world powers. Obama and Rouhani spoke by telephone in September.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to comment on Abutalebi when asked about him in Washington on Monday. "We don't discuss individual visa cases," she said. "People are free to apply for one and their visas are adjudicated under the normal procedures."
Iran's U.N. mission also declined to comment.
Abutalebi told Iranian media that attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1994 as part of the Iranian delegation. He also played down his role during the hostage crisis, suggesting he was just a translator.
"When it happened (the occupation of the U.S. embassy), I was in Ahvaz and not in Tehran therefore could not be part of it," he told the Iranian Khabaronline website.
"When I came back to Tehran ... I was asked to help with doing some translation and I accepted to do it," he said. "I did the translation during the news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released."
Former hostage John Limbert said he has questions about Abutalebi's stated role. "I'm not sure exactly what he means by 'translator'," he told Reuters. "For whom and where?"
Abutalebi, who has served as Iran's ambassador to Italy, Belgium and Australia, is not known for being a hardliner or having staunchly anti-Western views.
On the contrary, he is widely seen as a moderate and reformist who is close to Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both considered to be pragmatists who have good relations with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is also close to Mohammad Khatami, a reformist former president.
According to people who know Abutalebi, he was part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, the student group that occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, but was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.
Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani's political affairs office in September and headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council, an influential body chaired by Rafsanjani.
"Hamid is a moderate person and has always believed in moderation and reforms," an Iranian Foreign Ministry official and friend of Abutalebi said on condition of anonymity.
"He was one of millions of young Iranians who wanted the Shah to be toppled," the official said. "Hamid has never been a hardliner. And he always supported Khatami, and I know he supports Rouhani's moderate agenda."
"Once or twice he told me that the seizure (of the U.S. embassy in 1979) was a mistake," the official added.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent reformist journalist and editor of the now-closed Neshat newspaper, said he knew Abutalebi in the 1980s.
"He is a progressive," said Shamsolvaezin. "Many of the students from that time have had strange fates. Many of the leaders of that time are either in prison or were rejected from the government."
"Hamid Abutalebi is a good opportunity for bilateral negotiations between Iran and the U.S.," he added. "He is pragmatic. Also, if (Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif had any role in choosing him, he would probably agree with my points."
A former Iranian Foreign Ministry employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said about Abutalebi: "He is like (former student spokeswoman) Massoumeh Ebtekar and many other members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's line who are no longer extremists or radicals in any way."
Abutalebi is to replace Iran's outgoing U.N. envoy Mohammad Khazaee, an economist who took up the high-profile post in 2007.
Even if Abutalebi receives a visa to represent Iran at the United Nations, he will not be free to move about the United States. Iranian diplomats, like the envoys of North Korea and Syria, are confined to a radius of 25 miles (40 km) from Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan.
Iran's U.N. mission is its only diplomatic operation in the United States and has played a role as a conduit for unofficial exchanges of messages between Washington and Tehran on nuclear issues or the release of U.S. citizens held in Iran, Western diplomats said. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Michelle Moghtader in Dubai and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)