US imposes financial sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister
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US imposes financial sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister

In rare move against another country’s top diplomat, Washington freezes Mohammad Javad Zarif’s assets, appearing to close door on negotiations

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens during a meeting between the  Iranian president and the North Korean foreign minister in the capital Tehran on August 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens during a meeting between the Iranian president and the North Korean foreign minister in the capital Tehran on August 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)

The United States on Wednesday imposed financial sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as part of its escalating campaign of pressure against the Islamic Republic.

The highly unusual action of penalizing the top diplomat of another nation came a month after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order placing sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Responding, Zarif tweeted: “The US’s reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world.’ Is the truth really that painful?

“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.”

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control added Zarif’s name to a list of blacklisted people, according to a statement on its website.

Individuals and companies added to the list of Specially Designated Nationals have their assets blocked, and Americans are prohibited from dealing with them. Washington also will seek to curtail Zarif’s international travel.

Iranian officials have noted that Zarif doesn’t have any US assets.

US officials said Zarif’s travels to New York for official UN business would be uninhibited by the new sanctions, in accordance with Washington’s international obligations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (2R) gestures during a high level political forum on sustainable development on July 17, 2019 at UN Headquarters in New York. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Zarif met earlier in July with Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a Trump ally, about potentially opening a back channel for restarting nuclear talks between the two countries.

In June Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had announced the US would impose sanctions on the diplomat. But earlier this month reports said Washington had decided to hold off on leveling sanctions against Zarif, hoping to revive dormant negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.

A source familiar with the decision quoted by the Reuters news agency at the time said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed blacklisting Zarif.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin addresses a press conference on the sideline of the IMF/WB Annual meetings in Nusa Dua, Bali October 13, 2018. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

The move comes as the US has both pushed ahead with a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and also tried to cajole it into talks for a new nuclear deal, after the US withdrew last year from the 2015 pact that Zarif helped negotiate. Trump has long rejected the nuclear deal, saying it was too generous to Tehran and did not address its involvement in regional conflicts.

At the same time, tensions have been escalating over Iran’s moves to increase uranium enrichment beyond limits set by the deal, part of a bid to pressure Europe into helping it find a way to avoid the punishing sanctions, particularly against its oil sector.

The row has been exacerbated by alleged Iranian harassment and attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the downing of a US spy drone, and a build up of US forces in the region.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, in the Oval Office of the White House, June 24, 2019, in Washington. Trump is accompanied by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

There was no immediate response from Zarif, who has been a vocal critic of the US administration in media appearances and on Twitter.

Blacklisting Zarif likely puts a serious hamper on the US’s ability to negotiate with him — an option it had previously insisted it was open to.

Tehran has maintained it cannot enter talks until sanctions are lifted, and Zarif has described them as a form of warfare. It also says it will not renegotiate the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

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