On July 31, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for complying with the Iranian ‘regime.’
Five days later, Zarif responded by claiming the Trump administration imposed financial sanctions on him in response to his declined invitation to visit the White House.
The current situation of Iranian sanctions has both the U.S. and Iran pointing fingers at the other. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control claimed it was imposing the sanctions on Zarif for acting on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei was recently placed under U.S. sanctions as well. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader…The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable.” On the other hand, Zarif responded by saying the restrictions are a “failure of democracy” and he was told while in New York for United Nations (UN) meetings that if he didn’t accept an invitation to the White House, Trump would sanction him. He also claimed the U.S. was designating him because he is Iran’s primary spokesperson around the world. U.S. officials have yet to confirm his statements.
The Trump administration issued sanctions against Zarif that would block any property or interests he has in the U.S. These financial sanctions sound damaging; however, Zarif claims they will have no effect on him or his family as he has no property or interests outside of Iran. The Trump administration would not elaborate on how many assets Zarif has in the U.S. financial system, eluding that the strain placed on him may, in fact, be minimal.
After announcing the sanctions, the Trump administration faced some domestic praise and backlash. An avid supporter of the president, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R – SC), said he believes Zarif deserved the sanctions since he is empowering a regime that is “the largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Others, however, are more doubtful. Sen. Chris Murphy (D – CT) questioned the administration by saying “If our position is really that we want to negotiate with Iran then maybe we shouldn’t sanction their chief negotiator.” Murphy is referring to Trump’s goal of negotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran and he is correct when he states that Zarif is the primary negotiator between the U.S. and Iran. Even Republican Senator Rand Paul spoke out against Trump’s move, stating that sanctioning diplomats will bring less diplomacy.
Though the Trump administration does not consider Zarif to be a decision-maker, he undeniably played an instrumental role in the 2015 Nuclear Deal and has been the primary negotiator between the two nations in recent years.
While this is one of the more dramatic moves Trump has placed on Iran, it may not be the last. A State Department official claimed that the White House is attempting to block Zarif from acquiring a visa to attend the September UN General Assembly in New York. Although a spokesperson for the department later denied it, saying the U.S. takes its obligations as host of the UN seriously and his visits can still be allowed on a “case-by-case basis.”
These sanctions were announced as tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to mount. In May 2018, Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, claiming Iran failed to address its ballistic missile program. The goal of the agreement, backed by the Obama administration, was to encourage Iran to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Shortly after backing out of the deal, Trump began a “maximum pressure campaign” to isolate Tehran and re-impose the sanctions that were lifted under the agreement. Predictably, Iran responded by resuming nuclear activities.
In addition to Trump’s sanctions, the U.S. and its allies have been at odds with Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf, where Iran has tried to impede the passage of commercial tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Recently, in June, Iran shot down a U.S. Navy spy drone and, in July, seized a British-flagged tanker that it said had violated maritime law. This action was interpreted as retaliation for Britain’s involvement in detaining an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar on July 4. Iran called the event an “act of piracy” but Britain alleged that the vessel was heading for a Syrian refinery at Baniyas, a violation of European Union sanctions.
Trump has claimed he would like a broader deal with Iran that would address its nuclear program, ballistic missile development, and support for proxy forces in the Middle East, but these additional sanctions are sure to undercut that goal. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the administration still seeks a diplomatic solution but “the only path forward is a comprehensive deal that addresses the full range of its threats. Until then, our campaign of diplomatic isolation and maximum economic pressure will continue.”
It is unclear what practical implications the Trump administration’s actions will bring, but more is sure to unfold in the coming weeks as Zarif travels to New York City for UN meetings.