The White House Is Split On Iran, With One Side Thirsty For Conflict

President Donald Trump’s administration sanctioned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week ― a highly unusual move that effectively blacklists the country’s top diplomat when the U.S. and Iran have come exceedingly close to open military conflict.

As a means of furthering U.S. interests and pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the standoff with Iran, analysts say that sanctioning Zarif is nonsensical. 

“This is idiotic,” said Jarrett Blanc, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Obama administration official. “If Trump wants to talk, as he claims, he needs to talk to Iran’s chosen representative.” 

Of course, if Trump doesn’t want to talk, then the sanctions on Zarif make perfect sense. They are a way to create a scenario down the line in which military conflict is the only option left. “It’s hard to leave the door open for diplomacy when you sanction the diplomat,” said Wendy Sherman, who served as the Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal.

The U.S. and Iran have been locked in a cycle of provocations and threats since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Iranian nuclear capabilities in exchange for economic relief. Since then, the U.S. has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign of implementing sanctions and deploying military forces to counter Iran, pushing the two countries closer to conflict as Iran becomes increasingly belligerent in retaliation. 

It’s hard to leave the door open for diplomacy when you sanction the diplomat.
Wendy Sherman, Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal

It’s extremely rare for the U.S. to sanction a foreign minister, and no such designation exists for top diplomats from Syria, North Korea or a number of other authoritarian governments. The sanctions restrict Zarif’s access to U.S. financial systems, but are largely symbolic and are unlikely to prevent Zarif, who claims not to have any U.S. holdings anyhow, from traveling to the United Nations in New York. 

An alternate explanation is that the Trump administration sanctioned Zarif to distract from another policy move that it feared may have actually made it look “weak” on Iran. The same day the White House sanctioned Zarif, it quietly renewed sanctions waivers that will let other nations cooperate with Iran on civilian nuclear projects. Renewing the waivers upholds part of the nuclear deal, and is somewhat of a break from the U.S. maximum pressure campaign that has repeatedly jettisoned previous parts of the agreement and levied harsh sanctions against Tehran. It’s unlikely the timing of the renewal and sanctions was a coincidence.

“There’s no question that the two are connected,” said Sherman. “The press coverage, by administration design, is about Zarif being sanctioned, not about nuclear waivers, so the administration looks like it’s being tough.”

“For some in the U.S. administration, the designation is an effort to look tough after rumors it would renew the nuclear waivers for Iran,” said Dina Esfandiary, an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. “While for others, it is a way to close the door to diplomacy with Iran long term.” 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 5, 2019.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 5, 2019.

Hard-liners such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have been pushing the U.S. toward conflict for some time. Both men are longtime advocates of regime change in Iran, and The Washington Post reported last week that they argued against renewing the waivers in favor of more sanctions against Tehran. 

The near-simultaneous blacklisting of Zarif and waiving of sanctions are hard to square, but likely just reflect a chaotic national security apparatus that is split on Iran policy, Sherman said. While those pushing for a more measured diplomatic approach can be relieved that the U.S. renewed the waivers, Sherman says sanctions against Zarif are intended to “keep the hawks happy that war remains an option.”

“This move really puts the administration’s incoherent Iran policy on full display,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the think tank International Crisis Group. “On the one hand, this administration pretends it’s interested in diplomacy with Iran, while on the other, it sanctions its chief diplomat.”