(Persia Digest) - The International Crisis Group's Iran Project Director, Ali Vaez, believes: Sanctioning Zarif is seen by Trump as part and parcel of the maximum pressure strategy. Trump probably believes that the tougher the pressure of sanctions will become, the sooner Iran will come back to the negotiating table begging. Of course, this is wishful thinking.

The US Treasury has placed the Iranian foreign minister on its list of sanctions. Steven Mnuchin said “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world.” Zarif is sanctioned while Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he is ready to talk with Iran without preconditions.

Persia Digest (PD) has opened a special dossier to interview analysts of international relations. What follows is an interview by PD with the International Crisis Group's Iran Project Director, Ali Vaez.

What is the aim of the Trump Administration in sanctioning the Iranian Foreign Minister?

This seems to be primarily aimed at achieving two objectives: first is to silence Zarif, who is seen by the hawkish camp within the administration as an effective communicator who threatens their agenda of demonizing Iran and marshaling an international coalition to isolate the country; second is to hinder diplomacy with Iran by shutting the door on the most pro-engagement elements within the Islamic Republic.

Javad Zarif was sanctioned following a tweet by Trump saying: “The Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.” Is it possible to conclude that Trump now tends towards war instead of negotiations? Or this is a continuation of his maximum pressure and threats?

I believe President Trump remains reluctant to engage in yet another war of choice in the Middle East that could jeopardize his reelection. Designating Zarif is seen by him as part and parcel of the maximum pressure strategy. He probably believes that the more Iran turns into an international pariah, the tougher the pressure of sanctions will become and the sooner Iran will come back to the negotiating table begging. Of course, this is wishful thinking as Tehran will reject negotiating with a gun to its head and will continue to push back and impose a cost on the maximum pressure strategy. These entrenched positions on both sides are gradually pushing them toward a conflict that could easily spiral out of control. 

Read more:

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Iran: US closes path to diplomacy by sanctioning FM Zarif

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Can the US media still interview Zarif? How will the sanction limit Zarif’s media and public diplomacy?

That remains unclear. Some media for sure will shun Zarif now, but others might still interview him. The Treasury Department will have to give clearer directives, but if my analysis is correct that this move was partly aimed at silencing Zarif, one can expect clear directives on pushing him out of social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram and barring US media and think tanks from giving him a platform.

What are the consequences of these sanctions for the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal and tensions between the two countries?

This is undoubtedly another nail in the JCPOA’s coffin. The Trump administration seems keen on erecting a wall of sanctions that would 1) render re-entry into the JCPOA nearly impossible for the next US administration, and 2) poisoning the well in ways that Iran would never engage in any kind of negotiations with any US administration in the future.

Read more:

Sanctioning FM Zarif designed to frustrate those pushing for diplomacy

Zarif: Iran will take third step in scaling back obligations permitted under the JCPOA

Sanctions on FM Zarif aim to curtail Iranian diplomacy

Are other countries obliged to follow in US footsteps to sanction Zarif? How will this limit trips by Iran’s Foreign Minister?

No they are not and most other countries have already said that they will continue working with Zarif. As such, every time a European leader meets with Iran’s foreign minister, he or she will be undercutting U.S. sanctions, which is yet another reason that this was a shortsighted measure. Also, I think the U.S. will still issue him a visa to attend the UN General Assembly in September, but will do so at the last minute as a way of adding insult to injury.


Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group's Iran Project Director. He is known as one of the foremost experts on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Before joining the Crisis Group, he headed the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC. He has written widely on Iranian affairs and is a regular contributor to mainstream media outlets. He was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University from 2008 to 2010 and holds a PhD.

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