Trump administration sanctions Iran's foreign minister in escalation of tensions

Deirdre Shesgreen and Kim Hjelmgaard

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration said Wednesday it will sanction Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a move likely to ratchet up tensions and narrow the window for dialogue with the Islamic Republic.

The decision comes after weeks of heated rhetoric and confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, as the Trump administration tries to squeeze the regime economically and isolate it diplomatically. That effort has steadily intensified since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and world powers. 

That diplomatic break has now become increasingly fraught. Trump said the U.S. shot down an Iranian drone earlier this month because it was threatening an American ship in the region; Tehran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone last month. The U.S. has also accused Iran of sabotaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The regime seized a British ship on July 19 and is still holding the vessel.  

"The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable," Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in announcing Wednesday's action.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new sanctions represent "another step toward denying the Iranian regime the resources to enable terror and oppress the Iranian people."

"Instead of using Iran’s precious resources to invest in the brave and rightfully proud people of Iran, the Iranian regime facilitates and supports terrorism, jails and tortures innocent Iranians, fuels foreign conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and, in recent weeks, has expanded its nuclear program," Pompeo said in a statement. “Foreign Minister Zarif, a senior regime official and apologist, has for years now been complicit in these malign activities."

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani lambasted the new sanctions on Thursday as “childish."

“They have started doing childish things,” he said in a speech. “Every day they claim: ‘We want to negotiate with Iran, without any pre-conditions' and then they put sanctions on the country’s foreign minister."

Other critics said the move was counterproductive, particularly given that Trump has said he wants to negotiate with Iranian leaders and try to broker a new agreement to curb not only Iran's possible nuclear ambitious but also its ballistic missile program and other malign behavior. 

"If you sanction diplomats you’ll have less diplomacy," Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said in a tweet Wednesday. Paul has expressed fears about a possible war with Iran.

Even as the White House unveiled the sanctions against Zarif, it quietly renewed waivers that will allow Iran to continue to receive international assistance for its civilian nuclear projects. Under those waivers, China and other countries are helping Iran transform Iran's nuclear facilities to ensure they cannot be used to produce weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

Iran hawks had lobbied the Trump administration to sanction countries engaged in that work, while critics said it would encourage Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon. The administration's decision to sanction Zarif drew attention away from its waiver of the sanctions, and it could defuse some anger among hardliners who wanted the White House to take a tougher line.

Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, defended that decision in an interview with Fox Business Network on Wednesday and suggested it was a short-term reprieve. 

"This is a short, 90-day extension," Bolton said. But he said nothing Iran is doing under that exemption contributes to the possibly of Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability.   

The White House instead drew attention to the move against Zarif. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. had "indulged" Zarif as a reasonable interlocutor for too long, even as he acted as a propagandist for Tehran’s ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, and other malign behavior.

Asked how blacklisting Iran’s top diplomat squared with Trump’s plea for negotiations, the senior administration official said the White House does not consider Zarif “to be our primary point of contact” or an authoritative negotiator.

Negotiator for Iran deal

Still, Zarif, 59, is a relatively moderate, U.S.-educated Iranian politician. He was the chief negotiator for the 2015 nuclear deal. His blacklisting throws into doubt any future diplomatic efforts between Washington and Tehran and could be a victory for Iran's hardliners who have long sought to push back aggressively against the Trump administration. Zarif has advocated a more cautious approach.

Zarif seemed to embrace the Trump administration's decision a badge of honor.

"Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda," Zarif said on Twitter.

The reason Washington is "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."

Indeed, the practical implications of Wednesday’s actions remained murky.

A State Department official suggested that the U.S. would still allow Zarif to travel to New York to attend meetings at the United Nations – or would at least evaluate specific requests to attend U.N. meetings on a case-by-case basis.

"The United States will continue to uphold our obligations under the United Nations headquarters agreement," the State Department official said, which gives the U.N. control over its facilities and prohibits American officials from entering the building without permission by the U.N. secretary-general.

Zarif would also be immune from arrest while traveling to and from the U.N., according to the State Department.

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group focused on preventing conflict, said the move puts the “incoherence of the Trump administration’s Iran policy on full display.”

“… On the one hand, the administration says it’s interested in diplomacy with Iran. But on the other it sanctions’ Iran’s diplomat in chief,” Vaez said. And while the administration says Zarif is not an authoritative or worthy negotiator, it has sanctioned him of his role in shaping Iran’s polices.

Vaez said the impact on Zarif himself will be “negligible” since he doesn’t have any assets in the U.S. If anything, he said, it would bolster Zarif domestically.

“This is a boost for foreign minster Zarif domestically because his internal critics used to call him the American diplomat,” he said. “And the fact that he is now sanctioned on par with the Supreme Leader neutralizes a lot of the domestic internal criticism.”

Vaez said it would be remarkable if the Trump administration tried to block Zarif from attending United Nations’ functions.

“It’s quite a rare thing to prevent a foreign minister of another U.N. member state from coming to New York,” he said, adding it was unclear from Wednesday’s announcement how the State Department would handle that issue.

Under the sanctions, the U.S. can freeze any property or other assets Zarif holds in the U.S. and bar other American entities from doing business with him. Additionally, any foreign financial institution that “knowingly facilities significant transactions” on behalf of Zarif could be subject to U.S. sanctions.

Following the Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear accord in May last year, the White House re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. As Iranians braced for the full restoration of those sanctions in November, Zarif told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview that his government would be open to talking to the U.S. about a new nuclear arms accord if Washington changed its approach to the deal it exited. 

"Mutual trust is not a requirement to start negotiations – mutual respect is a requirement," Zarif said in the wide-ranging, 45-minute interview. Zarif hinted in the interview that Iran's government was waiting to see whether Trump would be a one-term president before deciding to completely abandon the nuclear agreement.

Iran has since taken steps to loosen its commitment to the deal, but it has not abandoned it completely. Instead, it has sought to pressure European signatories to the accord – Britain, Germany, France – to do more to help Iran circumvent the impact of U.S. sanctions that have reduced its oil exports and crippled Iran's economy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration sanctions Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif