The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday announced sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the grounds that Zarif acted on behalf of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself a sanctioned individual, and coordinated activities with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organization.
“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums,” Mnuchin added.
The Treasury action blocks all of Zarif’s property and interests in the United States and could make both Americans and foreign entities that engage in prohibited transactions with Zarif subject to penalties themselves.
Zarif was a major player in negotiating Iran’s nuclear deal with former President Barack Obama and remains highly regarded by the Democrat Party, to the point where high-ranking Democrats think nothing of transgressing against the loosely-written and inconsistently-enforced Logan Act to hold secret meetings with him.
AFP quoted an unnamed senior Trump administration official who said the White House has run out of patience with Zarif giving moderate cover to an extremist regime:
“The key issue is that he has had this veneer […] of being the sincere and reasonable interlocutor for the regime. Our point today is that he is no such thing,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“Today President Trump decided enough was enough,” the official said, accusing Zarif of functioning as “propaganda minister, not foreign minister.”
The official added that Zarif will still be allowed to visit the United States to participate in functions at the United Nations in New York, although his activities will be restricted. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested Zarif would not be allowed to leave the six-block area around U.N. headquarters.
Needless to say, Zarif did not take the sanctions well:
The US' reason for designating me is that I am Iran's "primary spokesperson around the world"
Is the truth really that painful?
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.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 31, 2019
Neither did his nominal superior, President Hassan Rouhani, who supposedly serves with Zarif in the relatively “moderate” secular wing of the Iranian government. The point of the U.S. sanctions, as expressed in Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s remarks, is to challenge the fiction that Iran is anything other than a belligerent theocracy.
“They are resorting to childish behavior,” Rouhani said of the United States on Thursday. “They were claiming every day, ‘we want to talk with no preconditions,’ and then they sanction the foreign minister. This means they have lost the power of rational thought.”
A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry denounced the sanctions as “the peak of paradoxical and stupid behavior” and “sheer folly.”
“The Americans are intensely afraid of Dr. Zarif’s logic and his negotiation skills,” the spokesman said.
Hossein Amir Abdollahian, a senior adviser to the speaker of the Iranian parliament, said the sanctions against Zarif prove the Trump administration is “seriously afflicted by a political vertigo, which undoubtedly ends in a collapse.”
“Trump is neither capable of war, nor has he succeeded to force Iran into negotiations through the path of threats,” Abdollahian jeered.
U.S. critics of the sanctions against Zarif, prominently including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), argued that whatever Zarif’s failings, he is the chief negotiator for the Iranian regime and the U.S. wants Iran to negotiate.
“If you sanction diplomacy, you’ll have less diplomacy,” Paul said.
The senior administration official who spoke to AFP responded that the U.S. government still wants negotiations, just not with Zarif, who is not regarded as “our primary point of contact.”
“If we do have an official contact with the Iranians, we want someone who is a significant decision-maker,” said the source, echoing a point made emphatically by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.
The New York Times noted the IRGC coming to Zarif’s defense by declaring the sanctions “ridiculous, illegal, and unwise,” arguing that the “hard-line” IRGC has frequently been at odds with Zarif’s more “moderate” approach, so the Trump administration has blundered by uniting Iran’s fractious government behind the foreign minister.
Some Iranian analysts quoted by the Times thought the sanctions could end Zarif’s career as chief negotiator, humiliate the moderate wing of Iranian politics, and empower the hardliners. Others thought the sanctions would boost Zarif’s standing both at home and internationally by making him look like “a victim of Trump’s unfair and chaotic Iran policy,” as reformist Saeed Shariati put it.
Skeptics at the White House would argue this merely proves their point that Iran’s endless moderates vs. hardliners struggle is largely theatrical, and talking to Zarif is pointless because the theocracy has all the real power, especially in matters such as foreign military adventures and nuclear weapons development.
The Times speculated Zarif was sanctioned as part of an internal struggle within the Trump administration, coming as it did on the same day the U.S. extended waivers from some sanctions tied to Iran’s nuclear program. This theory holds that sanctioning Zarif was meant to placate “Iran hawks” who opposed extending the waivers.
The European Union, which remains committed to the Iran nuclear deal, said on Thursday that it “regrets” the sanctions against Zarif and intends to keep working with him as “Iran’s most senior diplomat.”