Mohammad Javad Zarif. Picture: REUTERS/HEINZ-PETER BADER
Mohammad Javad Zarif. Picture: REUTERS/HEINZ-PETER BADER

Washington  — The US on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, targeting the country’s top spokesman and potentially hurting chances of diplomatic talks amid rising tensions between the two countries.

Zarif was an important figure in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal agreed under the administration of President Barack Obama with Tehran and other world powers. President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018.

Strains between Washington and Tehran have risen in recent months after attacks on tankers in the Gulf that the US blames on Iran and Iran’s downing of a US drone that prompted preparations for a US retaliatory air strike that Trump called off at the last minute.

“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The US is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The sanctions against Zarif would block any property or interests he has in the US, but the Iranian foreign minister said he had none.

“The US’ reason for designating me is that I am Iran’s ’primary spokesperson around the world’,” Zarif said on Twitter. “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 Trump administration said it would make decisions on whether to grant Zarif a travel visa, including for trips to the UN, on a case by case basis, holding open the possibility that he might attend the annual UN general assembly in September.

If Zarif received such a visa, that would leave the door open to possible direct or indirect US contacts with Zarif during the gathering, which brings most of the world’s leaders to New York and has been the venue for previous US-Iranian contacts.

A senior US official reiterated that Trump was open to talks with Iran, but said the administration did not consider Zarif to be a key decision maker.

Mnuchin said Zarif used social media to spread Iranian “propaganda and disinformation” while the government did not allow its citizens to use such mediums themselves.