If President Donald Trump’s goal is to confound and confuse Iran’s regime, then the sanctions designation against its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is a masterstroke.
If the purpose of his policy is to pressure Iran into submitting to a better deal than the one Zarif helped negotiate in 2015 or to deter Iran from its escalations in the Persian Gulf, however, then the designation is a blunder.
To start, just look at the statement Wednesday from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. It reads, “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world.” Half of this is true. Zarif is the regime’s mouthpiece. He is not the person carrying out Iran’s reckless agenda. That job falls to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and the new leaders of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has acknowledged as much. “Foreign Minister Zarif is no more in charge of what’s going on in Iran than a man in the moon,” he told Bloomberg Television this month.
Now consider the context of the Zarif designation. Since June, Trump has simultaneously built up the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian predations and sent emissaries to try to start negotiations. The private message to Iran’s leaders was clear: If an American is killed, then expect a response in kind. But if you’re willing to negotiate, name the time and place.
This approach is very Trumpian. Just look back at Trump’s tweets at North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un before they “fell in love,” as Trump put it, over negotiations in Singapore. Wage economic warfare to get a rogue to submit to negotiations, then charm the leader once those negotiations begin. But this strategy won’t work if Iran’s chief negotiator is sanctioned.
From my perspective, that outcome is just fine. Most Iranians despise their leaders. Why throw a lifeboat to a regime that’s drowning? But Trump has made clear, time and again, that his policy is not regime change.
So what exactly do sanctions against Zarif accomplish? One might argue that they clarify the offer of negotiations. But this could be accomplished with a tweet or a letter. One needn’t sanction a clownish and deceptive foreign minister to make clear that talking to him is a waste of time. If the sanctions designation is meant to show that there are consequences for Iranian provocations in the Gulf, then it inadvertently makes America look weak and feckless, especially since it appears the administration is prepared to waive some nuclear sanctions on Iran.
Zarif himself made this point on Twitter. “It has no effect on me or my family as I have no property or interests outside of Iran,” he said. “Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
Bookmark that tweet. It’s a rare instance when something Zarif says happens to be true.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.