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Trump administration sanctions Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

Javad Zarif. Photo: Yuri CO/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with a senior administration official telling reporters Zarif should not be treated internationally as a "credible" interlocutor.

Why it matters: As a senior administration official noted on a call with reporters announcing the decision, Zarif is "the international face" of Iran's government and played a central role in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, which the U.S. withdrew from in May 2018. This seems to be another signal from the Trump administration that punishing Iran is a higher priority than coming to a new deal.

"For far too long he has been indulged as the reasonable and credible face of Iran and today President Trump decided enough is enough."
— Senior U.S. official

An official on the call accused Zarif of "spearheading propaganda and disinformation efforts" and implementing the policies of Iran's supreme leader and Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The other side: When reports first emerged that the U.S. was considering sanctioning Zarif, there was considerable alarm among diplomats and former officials who said the administration, which claims to want a broader deal with Iran, was severing ties with its most likely point of contact for negotiations.

  • A U.S. official denied that the administration considers Zarif "to be our primary point of contact," in part because he's not a "primary decision-maker."
  • The officials on the call were intent on undermining his reputation as moderate figure within the regime, a reputation one official described as a "masquerade."
  • The same official said the delay on designating Zarif, which some had taken as a sign the administration was rethinking the move, was due to the fact that such a "highly unusual action" takes time to finalize.

What they're saying: Zarif offered a sarcastic "thank you" to the administration "for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda," and said the sanctions would have no tangible effect on him or his family because he has no "property or interests outside of Iran."

  • One official on the call declined to comment on whether Zarif had any relevant assets, while another said the State Department would review his ability to travel to the U.S. — for meetings at the UN for example — "on a case-by-case basis."