‘Huge threat.’ Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, smiles as he arrives for a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters in New York City on July 18. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

US Imposes Sanctions on Iran’s Top Diplomat

Move seems to boost Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s popularity, EU to continue working with him 

Amid rising tensions, the United States government, in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, has a new target for its sanctions. It’s the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

In a statement announcing the sanctions against Zarif, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world.”

It is highly unusual for one country to penalize another’s top diplomat. The move comes a month after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order placing sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the time, Washington hinted that Zarif might be next.

Zarif is the face of Iran’s foreign policy. The veteran, US-educated diplomat played a critical role in striking the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, a landmark deal aimed at limiting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

He’s described as charming and articulate, but he has many detractors at home.

“I think [the] new US action will boost Zarif’s position inside Iran but [will] close any door to talks between the two sides,” Iranian journalist Mahdi Mahmoudi told The Media Line.

Washington’s move to sanction Zarif has mobilized Iranian officials to close ranks around him, at least for now.

Mahmoudi described Zarif as a “professional diplomat” and “one of the best in defending his country’s values,” adding that he was a great asset for Iran in exposing US hegemony.

“He has challenged US politics in the world, especially in imposing sanctions against Iran. He has revealed US double standards on international issues in his interviews with US media,” Mahmoudi said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quick to defend his foreign minister, calling the imposition of sanctions on him “childish behavior” on the part of the Americans.

“They were claiming every day, ‘We want to talk, with no preconditions’… and then they sanction the foreign minister,” Rouhani said on Thursday during televised comments.

In a statement, Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – which is often at odds with the relatively moderate Zarif – ridiculed the US decision, calling it “absurd” and thanking the foreign minister for fighting a “media war” and advancing Iran’s diplomacy of resistance.

The European Union (EU) also came to Zarif’s defense, vowing to continue working with him.

“We regret this decision,” said Carlos Martin Ruiz De Gordejuela, a spokesman for EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini. “From our side, we will continue to work with Mr. Zarif as Iran’s most senior diplomat and in view of the importance of maintaining diplomatic channels.”

Political analyst Ali Mustafa told The Media Line from Istanbul that US efforts to isolate Iran had so far failed.

“The United States, along with some of its allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been trying to impose some sort of regime on the Iranians,” he said. “We saw this in Warsaw when Washington tried to build… a consensus with eastern European allies such as Poland, and bringing [in] allies from the Gulf and Israel.”

Mustafa added that these efforts have gone nowhere.

“Despite building all this pressure, [there is] not much to show for it,” he said. “And that’s why we see them taking punitive actions against Zarif.”

The foreign minister himself did not take the news sitting down, lashing out on social media to mock the US move, tweeting that the sanctions would have no impact on him or his family because he has “no property or interests outside of Iran.” He also thanked Washington for considering him “such a huge threat.”

The US move is certain to increase friction between the two countries amid existing concerns that Washington and Tehran are headed for a direct military confrontation.

“I think Iran has been able to deal with this pressure, and what’s helped [it] is a divided consensus in the West,” Mustafa, the Turkish analyst, told The Media Line.

“Most of Europe was against the US backing out of the JCPOA,” he said, adding that Washington may have shot itself in the foot by doing so. “By backing out of the Iran deal, [the US] became inadvertently the aggressor of sorts of this equation.”

Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American commentator and Washington-based consulting editor at the British Independent newspaper, told The Media Line that President Trump could have done himself a disservice with his decision to sanction Zarif.

“I think it’s a very undiplomatic decision, basically because if Trump wants to negotiate with the Iranians, Mr. Zarif is going to be the channel to start those negotiations, and he [Trump] just basically closed the door,” she said.

The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated even more in recent months following several attacks in the Gulf. The US blames Iran for being behind attacks on oil tankers, while Iran took credit for downing a US surveillance drone.

Tensions have also increased between Iran and the United Kingdom after British Royal Marines captured an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar, claiming it was carrying a shipment of oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions, a claim denied by Iran. Days later, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

“These types of… agitation will continue, but will it turn into a spark that will lead to war? I don’t think so yet,” Mustafa said. “And while [the] scenario is unclear, the US is doing all it can to try and maintain pressure on Iran.”

For more comments by Mortazavi on the US sanctions against Zarif, click here.

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