WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took the unusual step on Wednesday of placing sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat who negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement with the Obama administration.
The move essentially cuts off the clearest avenue for the administration to open talks with Iran, which it has argued was its goal in withdrawing from the nuclear accord. In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, senior administration officials described Mr. Zarif — who is well connected throughout the United States — as the “propaganda arm” of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But officials left unclear whether they would seek to bar Mr. Zarif from his visits to the United Nations. During meetings at the United Nations two weeks ago, he gave interviews to television networks and met with reporters, and seemed amused by the rumors that the United States was seeking to penalize him. Those interviews angered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials, who argued that he was abusing his visa, which limited him to meetings associated with the United Nations and restricted his movements to three buildings.
“Foreign Minister Zarif is a key enabler of Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies throughout the region and around the world,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement late Wednesday. “The designation of Javad Zarif today reflects this reality.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had hinted at the move weeks ago, said it was intended to send a message to Iran: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s supreme leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world.”
Although it is unclear whether Mr. Zarif has assets in the United States, which would be frozen under Wednesday’s action, he may be barred from entering the country. If he is, it could bring a halt to his regular visits to Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, where Mr. Zarif often presents Tehran’s case.
A senior Trump administration official suggested that Mr. Zarif had been afforded too much credibility over the years, saying that “he functions as a propaganda minister, not a foreign minister.”
Trump officials maintained that talking to Mr. Zarif was pointless because, they insisted, he lacked true decision-making authority. But it was unclear who else might serve as an intermediary for Tehran in any potential talks with Washington. Mr. Zarif spent countless hours negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Secretary of State John Kerry, along with European, Russian and Chinese officials.
Even so, Mr. Pompeo reaffirmed the value of diplomacy in his statement on Wednesday, saying that the United States “continues to seek a diplomatic solution that addresses the Iranian regime’s destructive behavior.”
“The only path forward is a comprehensive deal that addresses the full range of its threats,” he said. “Until then, our campaign of diplomatic isolation and maximum economic pressure will continue.”
Moments after the Trump administration’s announcement, Mr. Zarif welcomed the news in combative form on Twitter.
“The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ‘primary spokesperson around the world,’” he tweeted. “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.”