The U.S. Shouldn’t Sanction Iran’s Foreign Minister
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Trump administration has not yet followed through on its threat to slap financial sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Perhaps the White House has been unable to marshal the evidence that he deserves such punishment. Or, the delay may be a recognition of Zarif’s increasingly unclear status in the Iranian regime. But one way or the other, sanctioning Zarif at this point would be at best a waste of effort.
Zarif was never a Tehran power-player, but he did have a couple of years at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s most important mission: negotiating a nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers. It was for this purpose that Zarif, a civil servant with no political constituency, was elevated to ministership in mid-2013.
His qualifications for the task included a long spell in the U.S.—from 1977 to 2007, off and on, as a student in Denver and San Francisco, a neophyte diplomat in New York, and eventually as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Urbane and well-spoken, Zarif represented the gentler face of a regime that had come to be identified globally with the crude, boorish former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
Leading a team of Iranian negotiators, Zarif was able to capitalize on the eagerness of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to make a deal. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was greatly to Iran’s advantage: in exchange for suspending parts of its nuclear program for periods of 10 or 15 years and accepting international supervision of the deal’s implementation for 25 years, the regime would have some sanctions removed, and given access to billions of dollars in its frozen assets.
What’s more, the deal did not force Iran to suspend its other malign activities in the Middle East, such as supporting the genocide in Syria, sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and menacing neighbors with a ballistic-missile program.
At home, the deal made Zarif a hero; even Iran’s hardliners, who had been suspicious of Zarif’s Westernized ways, welcomed his success. He was hailed internationally, too—with talk that he and Kerry might get the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Zarif had made a strategic blunder. Although the Republicans would plainly undermine any deal struck by the Obama administration, Zarif had never reached out to them. He assumed that Obama’s imprimatur only needed ratification by the United Nations, and not Congress. For a man who claimed intimate knowledge of American politics, this was a surprisingly poor grasp of Washington realities.
Zarif did not even communicate with the Republicans when, near the end of the nuclear negotiations, 47 senators wrote an open letter, warning that “the next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.” When Trump did exactly that in 2018, Zarif channeled Captain Renault of “Casablanca” and affected theatrical surprise and dismay.
The end of the deal ended Zarif’s moment in the Iranian sun. He and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, were excoriated by hardliners for being too credulous in their dealings with the U.S. The failure of the JCPOA’s other signatories to save the deal only deepened suspicions that Zarif had bargained away Iran’s only chip, its nuclear threat, for nothing in return.
For all practical purposes, Iran’s foreign policy is now run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—specifically, Qassem Soleimani, who runs the Qods Force. When Syria’s Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran recently, Zarif was not even invited to sit in on the dictator’s meeting with the Supreme Leader.
In a fit of pique, Zarif enacted a faux resignation, via Instagram. He was easily mollified by Rouhani, and persuaded to remain.
Since then, however, he has dropped the pretense of being a diplomat, adopting an increasingly belligerent anti-American tone, complete with juvenile name-calling and Twitter trolling. Descending to bazaar-level conspiracy-mongering, he accused Israel’s Mossad of attacking oil tankers in a false-flag operation. He dubbed the most hawkish of Trump’s advisers and allies the “B-Team,” and responded to White House announcements with schoolyard taunts, like “Seriously?”
This posturing may be a way for Zarif to say to hardliners, “Look, I’m just as tough on the Americans as you are.” His transition, in rhetoric at least, from diplomat to politician has not gone unnoticed by Iranians. Some wonder whether he might be preparing to make that switch for real. Twice in the past few months, Zarif has had to deny speculation that he will run for the presidency when Rouhani’s second term ends in 2021.
But the hardliners in the Guardian Council, which vets all presidential candidates, are unlikely to allow Zarif to run. Nor, should Iran someday return to the negotiating table, is he likely to reprise his 2013-15 role. Among other things, his reinvention as Iran’s troll-in-chief has cost him international credibility.
American sanctions against him might bolster his stature in the eyes of hardliners. But it will only briefly postpone his gradual descent to the footnotes of history. Unless the Trump administration has evidence of specific wrong-doing by the foreign minister, it should let him simply fade away.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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