Sanctioning Zarif: Iran’s smiling chief explainer - analysis

Sanctioning him is part of increasing attempts by Washington to ratchet up pressure on Tehran.

August 1, 2019 21:11
3 minute read.
Sanctioning Zarif: Iran’s smiling chief explainer - analysis

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after posing for a family photo during the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Coordinating Bureau in Caracas, Venezuela July 20, 2019. (photo credit: MANAURE QUINTERO/REUTERS)

The US took the unusual but anticipated step of sanctioning Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday evening, saying that Zarif is the “chief apologist” of the regime. Zarif responded by saying that the sanctions will have no effect on him, and mocked the US for considering him a threat.

Sanctioning Zarif is part of increasing attempts by Washington to ratchet up pressure on Tehran. It began by leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. Then the US slapped increased sanctions on Iran, designed to bring its oil exports to near zero. This “maximum pressure” campaign was led by a new appointment at the State Department in August 2018 of Brian Hook, who was tasked with coordinating efforts against Tehran.

This year, the team around US President Donald Trump began to move in on new targets, sanctioning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in April and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in June. The US also warned Iran in May against attacks, and sent naval and air assets to the Gulf.

Nevertheless, Iran responded with a sabotage of tankers, used drones and rockets against Saudi Arabia and fired near US bases in Iraq. Iran also grabbed a UK oil tanker in response to the UK seizing an Iranian tanker in July.

Sanctions against Zarif were anticipated, and some thought they would come as early as June. But the US was waiting for one more card to add to its deck. Ostensibly sanctioning Zarif means that the US demand for a new Iran deal will be more difficult. How can you get a new deal if you sanction the dealmaker?

Nevertheless, the current US administration thinks that Zarif is pernicious because he is the smiling face and chief explainer of Iran. This is clear from the course he charts in Europe, and the desire by the US to restrict his movements to a small radius around the UN during a July visit to New York.

In the past, he has used trips to the US as an opportunity to appeal directly to the American people and high-level Democrats. He is seen as a threat, therefore, cultivating his own lobbying apparatus.

In Iran meanwhile, the goal is to pressure the Europeans to do more for Iran by walking away from key parts of the Iran deal. Iran wants sanctions relief and to continue its policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It also wants to show it means business in the Gulf. That is why it sent fast boats and a helicopter to grab a British ship almost under the nose of the Royal Navy.

Sanctioning Zarif is an important next step by Trump’s team, but with each step, they appear to make it more difficult to come back. You can’t just magically un-sanction someone or un-designate an entity that you labeled a terrorist group.

So what comes next with Zarif? The concept is to reduce his ability to influence the US, which means to reduce his media presence and the way in which Iran plays a “good cop, bad cop” game of moderates and hard-liners when speaking to foreign media and officials.

It also means that Iran has less of an ability to exploit the democratic nature of other regimes by cultivating think tanks and policy allies from opposition politicians in the US and the West, simply waiting until they come to power. Iran has become an expert at this in recent years, while denying Western diplomats the ability to do the same in Iran, and even reducing Western media presence in Iran.

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