On Thursday, the US Department of the Treasury announced that it was imposing sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. This latest step in the Trump administration’s application of “maximum pressure” has raised concerns about still greater escalation in the tensions between the two countries, but American explanations for the move sought to emphasize that diplomacy remained very much on the table.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani disparaged the latest sanctions as “childish,” while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps repeated a familiar Iranian reaction to foreign pressure by declaring the sanctions to be “illegal” and “ridiculous.” Zarif himself sought to downplay the potential impact of his own blacklisting, but also played up the significance of the gesture for the purposes of state propaganda. The sanctions have “no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran,” he said on Twitter before addressing the Trump administration directly and saying, “Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
However, White House officials explained that the motive for their targeted of Zarif had to do with concerns over the spread of Iranian propaganda beyond the country’s own borders. Inside the Islamic Republic, the theocratic regime exerts tight controls on the flow of information while maintaining a number of state media outlets. Most social media platforms are banned from Iranian internet servers, although countless tech savvy citizens circumvent those bans with the use of virtual proxy networks. But for Iranian officials, the regime does not even pretend to enforce those same bans, and so high-profile figures like Zarif are free to communicate their talking points to the international community.
The effect of this situation is arguably amplified by those same figures’ occasional access to Western media. Zarif has conducted numerous interviews on American television and in major newspapers and has consequently come under fire for spreading false narratives that originate at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. In 2015, for instance, he appeared on PBS to answer questions about, among other things, Tehran’s widely criticized human rights record. Despite countless independent reports of political imprisonment and associated instance of torture in the Islamic Republic, the Foreign Minister assure the audience that Iran “does not jail people for opinions.”
The White House apparently had these sorts of statements in mind when they announced the sanctions on Zarif, which had previously been discussed as a possibility when the Treasury announced sanctions targeted the person and office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as several officers in the Revolutionary Guard. At the time, moderate voices within the Trump administration seemingly prevailed after arguing that Zarif’s sanctioning could have a negative impact on the prospects for future negotiations between the US and the Islamic Republic. But leading up to this week, the administration apparently assigned greater importance to the goal of impeding Iranian propaganda, and it also decided that it would be fully capable of compensating for any negative impact.
Speaking to the press, an unnamed source within the administration explained that Zarif would not be the chosen point of contact for President Trump in any event. “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with someone who is a significant decision-maker.” This presumably means the Supreme Leader or a close advisor to him. President Rouhani is sometimes referred to as a potential interlocutor for foreign leaders, but Iran’s theocratic system assigns ultimate authority to the clerical rule in all matters of state, and Rouhani’s record over the past six years has consistently demonstrated either unwillingness or inability to stand up to Khamenei’s agenda.
This also speaks to another reason why the Trump administration may be disinclined to recognize much short-term significance in the isolation of Iran’s Foreign Minister. As the Washington Post explained on Thursday, although President Trump “has continued to say he is open to negotiations without preconditions, both [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [National Security Advisor John] Bolton have indicated that the list of conditions is long.” In outlining the administration’s Iran strategy, Pompeo listed a dozen key changes that would be expected in the regime’s behavior before the US even entertained the notion of alleviating sanctions.
For their part, Iranian officials have flatly rejected the prospect of holding talks with the United States, at least until such time as it reenters the nuclear agreement from which Trump withdrew last year. But this position presumably excludes the prospect of talks facilitated through the Foreign Ministry as well as direct talks between Iranian and American leaders. And that in turn makes sanctions against Zarif a moot point.
Furthermore, it is not clear that those sanctions will actually limit the Foreign Minister’s ability to communicate with foreign counterparts, at least in the context of international gatherings facilitated by the United Nations. The US is technically obligated to admit legitimate representatives to such gatherings, and despite imposing new sanctions the White House has not said that it would bar Zarif from entering the US in all circumstances. Instead, officials have stated that decisions would be made regarding his travel on a case-by-case basis. And as long as the sanctions are not accompanied by a blanket restriction, there may not be much change at all.
During Zarif’s most recent visit to the United Nations building in New York, the US government demonstrated that it was already prepared to impose limited restrictions on Iranian visitors, by granting them visa permissions only to enter certain official buildings but not to travel freely on US territory. This being the case, the new sanctions may not seriously impede America’s allies from having conversations with the Iranian Foreign Minister. But the media coverage of those sanctions has strongly suggested that some of those allies have responded with anxiety and protest anyway.
Such reactions represent one possible explanation for a step that was taken by the White House this week in the opposite direction of the maximum pressure directed against Zarif. Although Foreign Policy Magazine endorsed the notion on Thursday that Zarif’s sanctioning prefaced “dim prospects for Iran talks,” it also noted that the Trump administration had pushed back against its own most hardline voices by refusing to end sanctions waivers that allow “Russia, China and Europe to participate in Iran’s civil nuclear program.”
In the midst of Zarif’s isolation, the expiration of those waivers might have been seen as a step too far in the direction of preventing the other signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from continue their adherence to it. Alienating those partners, specifically the three European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – might be viewed as dangerous in the midst of the current tensions, which have seen Iran attacking tankers in and around the Strait of Hormuz, as well as shooting down an American surveillance drone.
In response to these actions and related threats, the US has initiated a program called Operational Sentinel, whereby it hopes to secure regional and Western participation in a coalition dedicated to providing security to ships transiting the Persian Gulf. Western commitments to that program have been slow in coming, partly because the European Union is worried about pushing tensions even further, and partly because the naval forces of member states are already overstretched.
The latter explanation was specifically offered by Germany earlier in the week, to explain why it was wary of participating. This prompted a sarcastic response from the White House, with one official suggesting that Europe’s largest economy consider purchasing more ships in order to meet the relevant need, rather than ignoring the crisis or removing its navy from other commitments. Nevertheless, by Thursday, Berlin had rejected a formal invitation to join the coalition. And although Britain and France are reportedly on board, the underlying hesitancy may be alarming to some advocates of maximum pressure, especially in light of the fact that Iran is having its own success in strengthening partnerships dedicated to countering Western power.
Earlier in the week, Iran’s naval commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi announced “a turning point in relations” between Tehran and Moscow, in the form of an agreement to expand military ties while planning joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. These developments came shortly after Zarif met with a representative of China’s Communist Party to shore of ties with that nation as well. And while there is certainly a military dimension to those ties, China may also help Iran to weather the storm of US sanctions, as evidenced by Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri appealing to China this week to buy more Iranian oil.
It remains to be seen how China will respond to this appeal, but there is at least as much uncertainty surrounding European nations’ dealings with the Islamic Republic. The British government in particular is in a state of flux following the election of a new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. So far, he has struck an assertive tone in discussing Iranian affairs, and his Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has repeatedly rejected the notion of swapping a tanker seized by the British Royal Marines for one seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in retaliation.
On the other hand, Johnson’s father gave an interview to Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV at the beginning of the week, and suggested that the new Prime Minister might be open to just such a swap. Days later, the new administration opened itself to new controversy with the appointment of Ben Wallace as Defense Secretary. Wallace has repeatedly visited the Islamic Republic and acknowledged in December 2015 that he is “often accused by some of being too pro-Iran.” His appointment thus raises questions about the extent of European commitments to putting pressure on Tehran, even as the US sanctions on Zarif make it clear that Washington is proceeding with little hesitation toward maximum pressure.