The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday in a dramatic step bound to further escalate tensions with Tehran.
The move to punish Iran’s top diplomat had been anticipated after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last month that President Trump had directed him to sanction Zarif. But the sanctions were delayed after State Department officials argued that would close the door to diplomacy.
Trump has frequently expressed a desire to talk with Iranian leaders, even as his administration deepens a maximum pressure campaign that has devastated the Iranian economy.
A Treasury Department statement said Zarif was sanctioned because he “acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Husseini Khamenei, who himself was sanctioned in late June. At that time, Mnuchin said measures would also be taken against Zarif, although action was subsequently postponed amid statements by Trump that he was willing to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions.”
“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,” Mnuchin said. “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.”
The sanctions freeze all U.S. assets and prohibit any U.S. person or entity from dealings with Zarif, and threatens sanctions against those in other countries that deal with him. Zarif, who was educated in the United States and has spent about one-third of his life in the country, has said he has no U.S. assets.
The sanctions also prohibit travel to the United States, which is already banned for Iranian officials. Under international agreement, the United States must admit those traveling to the United Nations in their official capacity. Zarif visited the United Nations in July, although the State Department limited him to U.N. headquarters and the Iranian diplomatic mission in New York.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Zarif has been “complicit” in Tehran’s support for terrorism, torture and foreign adventurism.
“Iran’s Foreign Ministry is not merely the diplomatic arm of the Islamic Republic but also a means of advancing many of the Supreme Leader’s destabilizing policies,” he said. “Foreign Minister Zarif and the Foreign Ministry he runs take their direction from the Supreme Leader and his office. Foreign Minister Zarif is a key enabler of Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies throughout the region and around the world. The designation of Javad Zarif today reflects this reality.”
Asked whether sanctioning Iran’s chief diplomat would limit U.S. ability to negotiate with Iran, if negotiations ever take place, a senior administration official said, “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with someone who is a significant decision-maker.”
Zarif “would not be the president’s selected point of contact,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the administration.
Zarif, who speaks fluent English and has a ready smile and generally calm demeanor, “has the veneer, the masquerade if you will, of being the sincere and reasonable interlocutor for the regime,” the official said. “Our point today is he is no such thing.”
While serving as the “international face of this regime,” the official said, Zarif has been “heading propaganda and disinformation campaigns” while “defending the regime’s persecution of the Iranian people … as well as suppression of free speech,” and support for the imprisonment of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian for 18 months, from 2014 to 2016.