(Written by David E Sanger and Michael Crowley)
The Trump administration took the unusual step on Wednesday of placing sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat who negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement with the Obama administration.
The move essentially cuts off the clearest avenue for the administration to open talks with Iran, which the White House has argued was its goal in withdrawing last year from the nuclear accord. In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, senior administration officials described Zarif — who is well connected throughout the United States — as the “propaganda arm” of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But with Zarif sidelined, it was unclear who else might serve as an experienced intermediary for Tehran in any potential talks. The administration has already imposed sanctions on the country’s remaining power centers, Khamenei and the elite military organization, the Revolutionary Guard.
Trump administration officials did not indicate whether they would seek to bar Zarif from visiting the United Nations, although they appear to favor doing so. During meetings there two weeks ago, he gave interviews to television networks and met with reporters, made what appeared to be an opening bid for diplomacy with the United States and expressed amusement at rumors that the administration was seeking to penalize him.
Those interviews angered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials, who argued that he was abusing his visa, which limits him to meetings associated with the United Nations and restricts his movements to three buildings.
“Foreign Minister Zarif is a key enabler of Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies throughout the region and around the world,” Pompeo said in a statement late Wednesday. “The designation of Javad Zarif today reflects this reality.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had hinted at the move weeks ago, said it was intended to send a message to Iran: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s supreme leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world.”
The defiant action is the latest in a series of mixed signals the Trump administration has sent Tehran. In mid-June, Trump approved — then pulled back — targeted airstrikes against Iran to retaliate for its downing of a U.S. surveillance drone. Trump offered a muted response to Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. When Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile last week, Trump officials played down the episode, even though they have publicly denounced Iran’s missile program.
And even as administration officials imposed sanctions on Zarif, they extended waivers on separate sanctions, related to Iran’s nuclear program, which were scheduled to kick in on Thursday. Those penalties would have dealt a new blow to the 2015 nuclear deal. Appearing on Fox Business Network on Wednesday, the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said that a waiver would be extended for 90 days.
It is unclear whether Zarif holds any assets in the United States, which would be frozen under Wednesday’s action, or how easily the administration could bar him from entering the country. As foreign minister, Zarif regularly visits Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York to skillfully present Tehran’s case. In his most recent visit, he contended that the United States was honor bound to respect the deal it reached four years ago — especially since no international bodies found that Iran was out of compliance.
Such arguments, delivered in the colloquial English that Zarif learned in prep school, college and graduate school in the United States, make him an often witty interlocutor with deep knowledge of the American political scene. That has also made him suspect in Tehran, where his many opponents call him “Zarif the American”; he sold out Tehran in the 2015 agreement, they contend, and was duped by his counterpart, the secretary of state at the time, John Kerry.
A senior Trump administration official suggested that Zarif had been afforded too much credibility over the years, saying that “he functions as a propaganda minister, not a foreign minister.”
Trump administration officials maintained that talking to Zarif was pointless because, they insisted, he lacked true decision-making authority. But he clearly had enough influence in 2015 to sell the Iran deal to the supreme leader.
Even so, Pompeo insisted he was determined to follow a diplomatic route, saying that the United States continued to seek a “solution that addresses the Iranian regime’s destructive behavior.”
“The only path forward is a comprehensive deal that addresses the full range of its threats,” he said. “Until then, our campaign of diplomatic isolation and maximum economic pressure will continue.”
Moments after the Trump administration’s announcement, Zarif welcomed the news in his signature combative form on Twitter.
“The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world,’” he tweeted. “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.”
Experts on Iran and former Obama administration officials, who worked closely with Zarif, questioned whether and how the Trump administration could renew talks with Tehran.
“Trump’s stated goal is to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but even if Iran decides in the coming months that the sanctions are no longer bearable and they want to negotiate with the U.S., it’s not clear how we do that,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The move drew an apparent rebuke from a Republican ally of Trump’s, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has advocated diplomacy with Iran. “If you sanction diplomats you’ll have less diplomacy,” Paul tweeted, linking to a news report about the new penalties against Zarif.
Wendy Sherman, who as the Obama administration’s top nuclear negotiator spent long hours with Zarif, called the sanctions against him “a dangerous escalation that undermines the president’s purported call for talks without preconditions.” She linked the action to the decision not to impose nuclear sanctions on Thursday, saying it was an effort to placate hard-liners toward Iran on a day that waivers on the nuclear program were extended.
“It appears Zarif is the price for that,” Sherman said.
“Clearly, this sanction demonstrates, again, that the internal administration debate whether war or diplomacy with Iran wages on,” she added.
Under the waivers that the administration intends to renew, Russia and European countries are allowed to assist in converting key Iranian nuclear facilities into energy and research centers — rather than places to make nuclear fuel.
Advocates of extending the waivers noted that they were essential to helping Iran find uses for those facilities other than enriched uranium, which can, at high levels of purity, be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran hawks in Washington had pressured Trump not to extend the waivers, and some expressed frustration at news reports that their renewal was imminent.