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Zarif sanctions show Washington is 'not interested in diplomacy'

Sanctions against Iran's foreign minister reveal Trump's call for dialogue with Tehran is disingenuous, analysts say
Mohammad Javad Zarif says Washington's sanctions will not affect him (AP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

As anti-Iran hawks in the United States have intensified their "maximum pressure campaign" against the country, Donald Trump has kept a diplomatic window open by urging dialogue over the past several weeks.

Still, US sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have dealt a blow to the prospects of talks between Washington and Tehran and cast doubt over the Trump administration's claims that it wants dialogue, experts say.

"This proves to the Iranians that the Trump administration is basically not interested in diplomacy," said Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think-tank.

"It gives credence to the strong Iranian belief that the Trump administration was always seeking regime-change in Iran."

Trump has repeatedly said that his policies are not aimed at changing the government in Tehran. 

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However, last year the US president abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement between Iran and several world powers that saw Tehran significantly scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions against its economy.

Since then, Washington has gradually imposed sanctions on various Iranian individuals, groups and industries, including vital oil exports.

On Wednesday, Trump's sanctions reached the top of Iran's diplomatic corp, with the Treasury Department freezing Zarif's assets in the US and barring Americans from doing business with him.

The Iranian foreign minister dismissed the measures, saying that he and his family do not have any "property or interests outside of Iran".

Still, the sanctions reveal a lack of foresight by the Trump White House, said Imad Harb, director of research at the Arab Center Washington DC. "This is surreal. This is absolutely ridiculous," Harb said of targeting Zarif.

Washington has said that its "maximum pressure" campaign aims to pressure Tehran to end its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, halt its support for allied groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and withdraw its forces in Syria.

Harb said that diplomacy requires offering something to one's adversary, not pressure alone.

"They are not credible," Harb said of Trump's calls for dialogue. "If you want to make Iran, or any other regime for that matter, listen to you, you allow as much diplomacy as possible."

'Incoherence on full display'

US administration officials have stressed that sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy, but so far, Washington's campaign has succeeded in forcing Iran to adhere to Washington's demands. 

What the sanctions have achieved is to foster tensions between the two countries, bringing them to the verge of war; Trump called off military strikes that he had approved against Iran minutes before their launch in June.

The White House has no interest in changing course, as evidenced by the sanctions against Zarif.

'On the one hand they say they're interested in reaching a better and broader deal with Iran. But then they turn around and sanction Iran's diplomat in chief'

- Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group

"We will continue to build on our maximum pressure campaign until Iran abandons its reckless foreign policy that threatens the United States and our allies," a senior administration official said earlier this week, according to a transcript provided by the White House.

Harb ridiculed the notion that Iran would give up its strategic ambitions as a result of the sanctions.

"That's not what Iran is interested in. Iran is not interested in doing what pleases the Trump administration," he told MEE.

"It's a fool's errand to keep asking Iran to compromise while at the same time you are showing Iran that you're not willing to compromise."

With Zarif under sanctions, it also is unclear with whom the Trump administration intends to negotiate if talks were to take place.

The administration official said that while Zarif was Iran's primary negotiator when the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the foreign minister is not the "primary point of contact" for the Trump administration.

"I think if we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker," the official said.

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Analysts say it is a mystery who that "significant decision-maker" would be.

The de-facto highest authority in Iran is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who also was slapped with US sanctions, late in June.

In that context, Vaez of the International Crisis Group said coming after Zarif "puts the Trump administration's incoherence on full display". 

He said the White House is portraying Zarif as an influential figure who needs to be penalised, while also saying he is not powerful enough to negotiate.

"On the one hand they say they're interested in reaching a better and broader deal with Iran," Vaez said. "Then they turn around and sanction Iran's diplomat in chief."

'Children on the playground'

Washington also is struggling to court its closest allies to adopt its rhetoric and policies against Tehran.

More than a year after leaving the JCPOA, European countries are sticking to the agreement. And earlier this week, Germany rejected a US proposal to join a maritime force to patrol Gulf waters against possible Iranian attacks.

Saeed Khan, a senior lecturer in Near East studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the sanctions against Zarif demonstrate Washington's frustration with its failing diplomatic efforts against Tehran.

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Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister has been meeting with his counterparts around the world.

On Wednesday, the administration official said the White House was not pleased with Zarif's reputation as a "reasonable" diplomat.

"For far too long, he has been indulged as the reasonable and credible official representative of Iran," the official said, according to the transcript. "And today, President Trump decided enough is enough."

Khan said lashing out against Zarif was a sign of an immature foreign policy.

"For the US to go ahead and do this is tantamount to children on the playground who are upset that somebody came around and is playing with the other kids better," Khan said.

"And so the United States wants to pick up the toys and run off with them."

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