The Trump administration imposed sanctions this week on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for doing his job. That’s not a joke. The first sentence of the Treasury Department’s announcement of the sanctions says that Zarif was being punished because he “acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The administration also contends that the foreign ministry under Zarif has cooperated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an influential military branch of the Iranian government that the U.S. designated as a terrorist organization earlier this year. But that’s just a variation on the same argument — that Zarif is a representative of the government that employs him.
The sanctions bar Americans from engaging in business dealings with Zarif and also freeze any property he has in the United States. But Zarif took to Twitter, President Trump’s preferred forum for diplomatic pronouncements, to mock the sanctions and note that they would have no effect on him or his family “as I have no property or interests outside of Iran.” So the primary purpose is to discredit and demean him.
That sort of ostracism might make sense if the United States were at war with Iran. But even as he has authorized a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran in the form of crushing economic sanctions, Trump has insisted that he isn’t seeking regime change in Tehran.
The president also has said that he wants to negotiate with Iran on a new agreement to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. (Never mind that Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international agreement that placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, restrictions Iran was honoring.) Sanctioning a country’s chief diplomat is a strange way to encourage it to come back to the negotiating table. Who exactly is he planning to negotiate with?
Bizarrely, administration officials suggest that the action against Zarif doesn’t jeopardize new talks with Iran because the foreign minister isn’t all that significant a figure in his country. That seems to contradict Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s description of Zarif as a “key enabler” of the agenda of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Zarif is distrusted by some Iranian officials, partly because of his leading role in negotiating the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration that Trump subsequently (and recklessly) repudiated. But Zarif’s resignation earlier this year was rejected by President Hassan Rouhani and he remains in his post. It’s doubtful that the U.S. will be able to bypass Zarif and deal directly with Rouhani or Iran’s supreme leader.
That assumes, of course, that the administration really wants to engage Iran diplomatically and pave the way for a new and more ambitious nuclear agreement. Unfortunately, we can’t be certain of that because the administration lacks a consistent and coherent policy toward Iran. Trump seems more inclined to negotiate with Iran than Pompeo or national security advisor John Bolton , but the signals constantly change.
At a time of rising tensions with Iran — caused in part by the Islamic Republic’s provocative behavior — the administration needs to be credible when it says it wants to pursue diplomacy. The sanctioning of Zarif undermines that assurance.