President Donald Trump says he wants to talk to Iran, but hawkish elements in the Trump administration have closed yet another avenue to negotiations, putting economic sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, late Wednesday. Meanwhile, the hardline Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has forged a role for himself in the administration’s Iran policy—and emerged as a potential contender for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s job.
“This is simply absurd. It's the same as someone claiming to want to win the World Cup, and to prove it they cut off their own legs and sanction FIFA,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin banned Zarif from doing business in America or with Americans. He cited Executive Order 13876, signed by Trump on June 24, to block anyone “appointed by the Supreme Leader of Iran or the SLO [Supreme Leader’s Office] to a position as a state official of Iran, or as the head of any entity” from the U.S. economy.
Trump has the authority to do this because U.S.-Iranian relations have been in a declared “state of emergency” since 1995.
The U.S. Treasury also claimed that the Iranian foreign ministry “coordinates with one of the Iranian regime’s most nefarious state entities,” the elite Qods (Jerusalem) Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Trump administration declared the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group in April 2019—”the first time that we had sanctioned the military of another country,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Project.
In its own statement, the State Department complained that “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.”
Sina Toossi, a research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, sees a contradiction in the administration’s logic. The Treasury imposed sanctions “because Zarif is close to Khamenei,” but U.S. officials are also claiming behind Trump’s back “that Zarif is not a major decision maker, so we don't want to negotiate with him,” as Toossi paraphrased.
“If we want a new deal [with Iran], who is supposed to lead the negotiations? We don't get to choose the Iranian chief negotiator, any more than they get to choose our chief negotiator,” Slavin told the National Interest. “The whole thing sabotages any possibility for diplomacy, which may the goal of those who put it forward, frankly, because they don't want to see a new deal between the United States and Iran.”
Zarif responded to Mnuchin that the sanctions have “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,” in an English-language Twitter post. “Is the truth really that painful?”
State-affiliated media in Iran ran Persian translations of Zarif’s taunt, while politicians seized on Mnuchin’s allegation that “Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world.”
“A country which believes it’s powerful and a world superpower is afraid of our foreign minister’s interviews,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani told state television.
“America is afraid of not only Iran’s missiles, but also its words,” echoed Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, spokesman for the Guardian Council, which oversees relations between Iran’s elected government and the unelected Supreme Leader. “The sanctions on Mohammad Javad Zarif mean that America’s so-called freedom of speech is a lie.”
Mohsen Zarkesh, a sanctions lawyer at Price Benowitz LLC, speculated that “there's a distinct thought with sanctions practitioners” that members of the Trump administration were indeed “irked” by Zarif’s “proactive” use of English-language Twitter and his recent visit to the United Nations in New York City, where he met with U.S. lawmakers and gave interviews to various media outlets, including the National Interest.
“It can be argued that it's illegal” to interview Zarif or host his social media accounts now, Zarkesh warned. “I believe it could also be argued that it's enough of a gray area where it's not. If I was U.S. media, I would definitely seek guidance on the matter,” he told the National Interest. “The question is going to be whether U.S. media is going to take on the compliance risk of potentially ‘importing a service’ from a [sanctioned individual].”
Twitter declined a request for comment on Zarif’s account “for privacy and security reasons.”
As for Zarif’s ability to address the United Nations, the State Department spokesperson reassured the National Interest that “[t]he United States will continue to uphold our obligations under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement. Eligible individuals traveling for official UN duties would be immune from arrest while exercising their functions and during their travel to and from the UN.”
But “the U.S. could make it really difficult or humiliating for Zarif to come,” Slavin said, citing visa delays that Zarif experienced when he attended UN meetings two weeks ago. And in February 2018, airport authorities in Germany refused to refuel Zarif’s jet, citing uncertainty around U.S. sanctions on the Iranian government, until the German military agreed to provide the fuel itself.
“Hawks in the administration likely pushed the [latest sanctions] as another effort to constrain Trump, who has flirted with the idea of negotiating with Iran in the past,” Henry Rome, an analyst on Iranian and Israeli politics at the Eurasia Group, wrote to the National Interest. During his latest UN visit, Zarif met with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who had Trump’s public blessing to float new negotiations.
“I think diplomacy is a good idea, and I think that if sanctions are to work, you also have to talk about removing them,” Paul told Fox News at the time. “So I think the discussion now, since we have maximum pressure on and maximum sanctions on Iran, now we have to say what would we be willing to remove them for.”
Paul’s office refused to comment, but Zarif hinted to the National Interest that their meeting fell short of expectations.
“I meet with members of Congress but I do not comment on specific meetings with specific members of Congress. But members of Congress, senators, and members of the House are not parties for negotiations,” Zarif told the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn in an exclusive interview. “They are representatives of the American people whom we respect and we engage just for clarifications, not for negotiations. We can only negotiate with governments.”
“The Iranians didn't view Rand Paul as a credible negotiator who has Trump's ear,” Toossi explained. “There needs to be someone who ideally has a track record of having engaged in negotiations with Iran,” he continued. Toossi named Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who is successfully overseeing negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the type of diplomat who would fit the bill.
In the meantime, the Trump administration is apparently swinging back towards the hawks, as Graham has reportedly been in talks with high-level Trump officials.
The senator proposed an agreement in which Middle Eastern countries could have nuclear power plants, but the United States would control the enrichment and processing of their radioactive fuel.
“It’s reasonable for the entire region,” he said in an interview. “Except for Israel. I’m not talking about Israel. They’re in their own sort of… category.” Israel does not accept international oversight of its nuclear program and is believed by U.S. officials to be concealing nuclear weapons.
Experts say that Graham’s deal, which would turn over Iran’s energy policy to a rival power while allowing its sworn enemy’s nuclear arsenal to grow, is a nonstarter. Instead, the proposal may be a ploy by hawks to force Iran to reject negotiations.
“They have come to the conclusion that it's a bad look for them that they're claiming to want diplomacy, but they're not putting anything forward that could be considered serious,” Parsi told the National Interest, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, both hardliners against the Islamic Republic. “They need someone like Lindsey Graham, because they can completely trust that whatever he puts forward is going to be such a nonstarter that they don't have to worry about the diplomacy actually taking place.”
“They want a non-functioning diplomatic option that is not coming from Pompeo or Bolton in order to cover that space, and have Trump opt for that if he's really eager for diplomacy,” Parsi continued. “The idea that Lindsey Graham is going to pursue serious diplomacy is simply laughable. This is a person with a track record of pushing things towards war all the time.”
The hardline senator has previously called the Islamic Republic a “provocative regime” and an “enemy of mankind,” warning Iran to prepare for “severe pain.”
Slavin and Toossi, who agreed that Graham’s plan is likely to go nowhere, both speculated that his proposal could be an “audition” to replace Pompeo, if the latter decides to run for Senate in 2020.
“If that's the explanation, that further reinforces that [Graham] has absolutely nothing to do with actual diplomacy,” Parsi said. “This would be for him to audition on how effective he is in making sure that diplomacy doesn't happen.”