US Sanctions Iran Foreign Secretary Amid Heightened Tensions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions Wednesday on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, accusing him of acting on behalf of Iran’s supreme  leader — a move the Iranian president denounced as “childish” and a barrier to diplomacy.

The announcement from the department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control points to interactions between Zarif and supreme leader Ali Husseini Khamenei, who was slapped with sanctions this year. Khamenei also will be added to the office’s list of specially designated nationals and blocked persons list.

Wednesday’s action stems from a June executive order, which sanctioned Khamenei, his office and others.

“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s supreme leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.”

The department also said U.S. officials believe Zarif’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has coordinated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Force-Quds Force to act inappropriately. Some of these accusations include funding efforts to influence elections and making payments to foreign judiciary officials to release guard operatives.

In a conference call about the sanctions Wednesday, Treasury Department representatives said the sanctions are a clear message that Iran’s recent actions are unacceptable. Some of these actions included Zarif’s defense of the execution of homosexuals and the escalation of a trade route dispute in the Strait of Hormuz, officials said.

Mnuchin said in June that Zarif would be sanctioned then, but there was still optimism for diplomatic talks.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have heightened since the president pulled out of a joint nuclear deal with the country in May. Zarif had been America’s point of contact for the deal’s negotiations during the Obama administration.

This strained relationship has not improved. This month, U.S. troops downed an Iranian drone which was reported to have been within 3,000 feet of an American amphibious assault ship. The drone was told to divert course several times and eventually destroyed.

The same day, Iranian officials claimed they had seized a Panamanian tanker and its crew.

In June, President Donald Trump called back a strike against Iranian facilities 10 minutes before it was to be carried out, after Iran destroyed a U.S. drone it claimed was flying over its airspace. Trump called the proposed strike disproportionate due to a large number of possible civilian casualties.

Zarif responded to the sanctions through Twitter Wednesday, thanking the administration for considering him a threat to its agenda.

“The U.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,” Zarif tweeted.

Jamal Abdi, president for the National Iranian American Council – an activist group focused on strengthening relationships between the American and Iranian people – said in a statement that without Zarif, America will have no ability to de-escalate war-inciting tensions. Interactions between Zarif and American officials have benefitted the U.S. on more than one occasion, Abdi said.

“Zarif assisted the U.S. in forming a government in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, credibly hammered out a nuclear accord with former Secretary of State John Kerry and was pivotal in both freeing American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters and the prisoner swap that freed unjustly detained Americans in 2016,” Abdi said in a statement Wednesday. “His sanctioning now by Trump plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners and forces on all sides that want to entrench U.S.-Iran hostilities.”

The highly unusual action of penalizing another nation’s top diplomat followed President Trump’s executive order placing sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“They have started doing childish things,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech in western Azerbaijan province.

“Every day they claim: ‘We want to negotiate with Iran, without any preconditions’ and then they put sanctions on the country’s foreign minister,” he said.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran, an activist group promoting civil rights in the country, could not be reached for comment.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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