The US says it restricted Zarif’s travel in a manner ‘fully consistent’ with obligations under a 1947 agreement [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]
Zarif arrived in New York on Sunday after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on the visit amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
But Zarif is only allowed to travel between the United Nations, the Iranian UN mission, the Iranian UN ambassador’s residence and New York’s John F Kennedy airport, a US State Department official said.
The official accused Iran’s foreign minister of using US freedoms “to spread malign propaganda”, and said Zarif “is a mouthpiece of an autocracy that suppresses free speech”.
Late last month, Washington threatened to blacklist Zarif, a move that could impede any US effort to use diplomacy to resolve disagreements with Tehran. However, sources told Reuters News Agency that Washington decided to hold off for now.
Longtime US-Iran strains have worsened since US President Donald Trump last year quit a 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq on Monday told reporters the UN secretariat is “in close contact with the permanent missions of the United States and Iran to the UN and has conveyed its concerns to the host country”.
US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, said no US government officials would meet Zarif.
“There is no backchannel currently going on between the United States and anybody in the Iranian regime. Everything that’s being said is being said by the president and the secretary of state publicly,” Hook told Fox News Channel.
The US restricted Zarif’s travel “in a manner that is fully consistent” with its obligations under a 1947 agreement with the United Nations, the US State Department official said.
Despite the travel restrictions, Zarif did interviews on Monday with Britain’s BBC and US network NBC at the residence of the Iranian UN ambassador on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said all of Zarif’s meetings, interviews and speeches would be done at the UN, the Iranian UN mission or the Iranian UN ambassador’s residence.
“Putting restrictions on his presence in some streets in New York will certainly not affect his work schedule,” he said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
‘Foreign policy’ reasons
Zarif will attend a ministerial meeting at the UN on sustainable development goals, which aim to tackle issues including conflict, hunger, equality and climate change by 2030.
Iranian diplomats, like the envoys of North Korea, Syria and Cuba, are already confined to a radius of 50km from Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan.
Under the 1947 UN “headquarters agreement”, the US is generally required to allow access to the UN for foreign diplomats. But Washington says it can deny visas for “security, terrorism, and foreign policy” reasons.
In April 2014, the US would not grant a visa to Iran’s chosen UN ambassador, Hamid Abutalebi, because of his links to the 1979-1981 Tehran hostage crisis when radical students seized the US Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Abutalebi said he acted only as a translator.
Iran complained to a UN committee, but ultimately ended up appointing a new ambassador in early 2015.