The cameraman from the Iranian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly is seeking political asylum in the United States following the High Level UN Debate. When the 140-person delegation flew home at the end of September, Hassan Gol Khanban secretly stayed in the United States and retained an attorney to file an asylum claim. Gol Khanban said he is afraid to go back to Iran because he fears persecution due to his political views. This fear invokes international and domestic protection schemes intended to prevent persons from being returned to their home country.

Gol Khanban’s claim of fear aligns with Article 1 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear” of returning to his country of origin because of belonging to a certain group or practicing a certain religion. A subset of  refugees are protected under Article 33, which obligates States Parties not to return a refugee when his or her “life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This principle, which evokes the binding customary international principle of non-refoulement, is included in the scope of the Protocol to the Convention, which the United States ratified in 1968 despite not ratifying the underlying treaty.  Under the non-refoulement principle, the United States thus would be bound to refrain from forcibly removing Gol Khanban to Iran. However the United States would not be obligated to grant him asylum.

Under the U.S Refugee Act of 1980, which protects the same five groups as Article 1 of the Convention, Gol Khanban has affirmatively initiated the discretionary asylum process. The Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services may grant him asylum to remain in the United States if it finds that he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of his political opposition. In 1987, in the case of INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, the Supreme Court said that the standard does not mean more likely than not, and suggested it could apply even if the person only has a ten percent chance of being persecuted upon returning to a country of origin. If Gol Khanban is denied asylum, a U.S. immigration court could still grant him withholding of removal under the UN Convention Against Torture if he shows that he is more likely than not to be tortured if returned to Iran. Although American authorities could benefit from Gol Khanban’s contact with President Ahmadinejad and alleged access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, he must still meet the burden for a well-founded fear of persecution under U.S. law.