US reportedly backs off threat to sanction top Iranian diplomat Zarif

‘Cooler heads prevailed,’ source tells Reuters, weeks after Mnuchin said new penalties on the foreign minister would be announced in coming days

In this Sept. 6, 2015, file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stands prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran.  (AP/Vahid Salemi)
In this Sept. 6, 2015, file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stands prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The United States has reportedly decided to hold off on leveling sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in apparent hopes of reviving dormant negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.

The decision, first reported on by the Reuters news agency, marks a reversal for the administration after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had announced the US would impose sanctions on the diplomat late last month.

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

“Cooler heads prevailed. We … saw it as not necessarily helpful,” the source was quoted saying.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a media briefing at the US State Department, June 13, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The reported 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)

On June 24, Mnuchin told reporters that the US would follow up sanctions on Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by also imposing restrictions on Zarif later that week. A treasury spokesperson referred Reuters to comments by a US official earlier in the week saying that Zarif was “a figure of key interest,” as it explores sanctions.

According to Reuters, the Treasury had gone so far as to draft a press release announcing the sanctions.

On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump tweeted that “Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!”


On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who thanked him “for his intention to increase sanctions against Iran,” according to the premier’s office Thursday.

Netanyahu has praised the US for its sanctions regime and urged Europe to follow suit.

The White House said the two discussed “Iran’s malign actions in the region.”

US National Security Adviser John Bolton, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

There was no immediate response from Zarif, who has been a vocal critic of the US administration in media appearances and on Twitter. The news was first reported during pre-dawn hours in Iran.

No reason was given for the move, but blacklisting Zarif would likely put a serious hamper on the US’s ability to negotiate with him, which it insists it is open to.

It would also bar the diplomat from being able to attend a UN meeting on sustainable development goals in New York next week. As far as is known, Zarif is still slated to attend.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) attends the 70th session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations on September 28, 2015 in New York. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Tehran has insisted 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.

“No country is ready to negotiate with a country that is putting a gun at its chest,” Iranian diplomat Kazem Gharib Abadi told reporters this week outside a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna called to discuss Iran’s increased enrichment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 13, 2015. (Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno/AP)

Jackie Wolcott, the US ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, told Iran and others at the meeting that Washington was open to “negotiation without preconditions” on a new nuclear deal, and that “the only path to sanctions relief is through such negotiations, not nuclear extortion.”

“We are committed to denying Iran the benefits it seeks from these most recent provocations,” she said. “It is imperative that this misbehavior not be rewarded, for if it is, Iran’s demands and provocations will only escalate.”

Iran announced last week that it had exceeded the amount of low-enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile under limitations set in the 2015 nuclear deal. Since then, it also announced it has started enriching uranium past the 3.67% purity allowed, to 4.5%, and IAEA inspectors verified both developments.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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