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U.S. sanctions on Iran are becoming an end, not a means

Mohammad Zarif seated at a conference table
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration's decision to put Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s mellifluous foreign minister, on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list makes clear that the means of pressure and sanctions have increasingly become the end goal of the U.S.' Iran policy.

The big picture: When President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last May, he insisted he could negotiate a much better agreement. More than a year later, however, the U.S. is no closer to such talks, dangers across the Middle East have escalated and the man who would have led Iran's negotiations has been sidelined — at least from the Trump administration's point of view.

Driving the news: Officially, sanctions on Zarif extend the “maximum pressure” campaign intended to force the Islamic Republic to retreat from foreign interventions and end its uranium enrichment.

  • Yes, but: Iran has become more assertive in its neighborhood and is now breaching limits set in the nuclear deal — the opposite of the Trump administration’s stated goals.

Between the lines: Iran hawks in the U.S. have been irked by Zarif's American media appearances, particularly a controversial Fox News interview in April. Zarif was educated in the U.S. and has a rolodex full of contacts to call upon from his time as Iran’s UN ambassador.

  • Ironically, this personal assault on Zarif may boost his fortunes in Iran, where hardliners have blamed him for negotiating an agreement that has led to more economic misery instead of promised sanctions relief.

What to watch: It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will try to bar Zarif from attending the annual September meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York City, an event Zarif uses to meet with American politicians, scholars and journalists. Such a move could potentially violate the U.S.' host country agreement that allows accredited diplomats to participate.

  • For now, Zarif still has access to what has become the main channel of communication between the U.S. and Iran in the Trump era: Twitter. He responded to his sanctioning by tweeting, “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.