The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, an extraordinary move that could vastly complicate President Donald Trump’s stated desire to launch new negotiations with Iran.
The sanctions are sure to further escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran — strains that have grown since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and which some fear could ultimately lead to a military conflict.
In June, Trump imposed sanctions targeting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Muslim cleric with final word on matters of state. The decision to target Zarif, the Iranian regime’s well-traveled chief diplomat, cuts off the man who has directly negotiated with the U.S. in recent years.
“Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. He added that “at the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media,” Zarif is spreading the regime’s “propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.”
Zarif promptly hit back on Twitter: “The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world.’ Is the truth really that painful?” He added: “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
However, if the sanctions are interpreted broadly and strictly, Zarif’s ability to travel in the U.S. and possibly even in Europe or beyond could still be imperiled, especially if foreign firms fearful of American sanctions, including airlines, don’t want to do business with him.
This is a crucial point. Despite Trump’s own repeated insistence that he wants to talk to Iran — at least some of his aides aren’t truly interested in diplomacy.
“If our position is really that we want to negotiate with Iran [then] maybe we shouldn’t sanction their chief negotiator. Just sayin,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
Under US sanctions law, any entity that engages with Zarif is immediately subject to federal prosecution. This includes foreign nationals and foreign entities – who will be barred from travel or doing business to or with the U.S.
Trump’s administration was always at odds with the Europeans, at odds with the media, and even at odds with former Obama administration individuals like John Kerry (who were reported to have private meetings with Zarif). Its an attempt by the Trump administration to impose full control on communications to and from Iran’s government.
While the new sanctions appear to target Zarif’s assets and forbid U.S. firms from doing business with him, it wasn’t immediately clear if they meant the foreign minister can no longer visit America. Zarif stops by New York City on occasion for United Nations-related events, and a State Department spokesman said his travel for those purposes could still be allowed on a “case-by-case basis.” That’s because the U.S. has certain obligations under what’s known as the United Nations Headquarters Agreement.
One thing to remember is that situation with Iran is very twisted and strange.
Interestingly, the New Yorker magazine reported on Friday that US Senator Rand Paul, acting with permission from President Donald Trump, had extended an invitation to Iran’s foreign minister during his visit to New York last month for meetings at the United Nations.
Minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif told Paul it was up to the Iranian government in Tehran to decide on accepting or rejecting the invitation to the White House, the New Yorker reported, with the foreign minister also expressing concern that any meeting might end up as little more than a photo opportunity. Iran’s leaders did not approve a meeting, the magazine said.
After inviting him to the Whitehouse (and creating suspicion among hardliners in Iran), sanctioning Zarif may in fact buttress Zarif’s position domestically, since it is well known that Zarif’s position in Iran has at times appeared tentative. In February, he announced he was resigning, but within days was back on the job. Some Iran experts said the U.S. decision to sanction Zarif could strengthen his credentials with hard-liners back home.
Like all previous US sanctions, they are not helpful and do not play a constructive role in transforming the relationship or promoting mutual interests. Its fundamentally a sign of weakness.