Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas after their talks in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 10, 2019. Zarif warned the U.S. on Monday that it "cannot expect to stay safe"…
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference in Tehran, June 10, 2019.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.

Iran’s wealthy top diplomat, who has spent a third of his life in the United States, could see Washington sanction his assets and further limit his ability to visit the U.S. in the coming days.

In a White House press briefing Monday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said President Donald Trump had instructed him to impose sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by the end of the week.

Mnuchin’s announcement coincided with the Trump administration sanctioning Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and eight senior commanders of Khamenei’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for the first time. Mnuchin said the new sanctions target individuals whom Washington sees as responsible for Iran’s perceived malign behaviors, including its shoot-down of a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf last week.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures to a crowd at a June 4, 2019 ceremony in Tehran marking the 30th anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose portrait appears behind him.

As Iranian foreign minister, Zarif has a seat on Iran’s influential Supreme National Security Council, a body with 12 permanent members who make policy recommendations to Khamenei for defending the nation’s Islamist leadership against internal and external threats.

“No one should make any mistake that Zarif is close to Iran’s supreme leader, close to President Hassan Rouhani and a loyal foreign minister to his government,” said former U.S. Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who was Barack Obama’s chief U.S. negotiator for talks with Zarif leading to the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Sherman spoke to VOA Persian in a Wednesday phone interview.

Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council research group that seeks to improve understanding between the two peoples, said Zarif is the closest Iranian foreign minister to Khamenei since the supreme leader took office 30 years ago. Zarif has served as foreign minister since President Rouhani selected him for the post in 2013.

“When Khamenei got onto the U.S. sanctions list, it was natural to put Zarif there too, because he is the other side of the coin,” Amirahmadi told VOA Persian by phone on Monday.

Strained ties

Zarif’s closeness to Khamanei has come under strain in the past year. In an August 13, 2018 speech in Tehran, Khamenei said he made a “mistake” in allowing Iranian negotiators to cross his “red lines” in reaching the nuclear deal, whose future was in doubt after Trump withdrew the U.S. from it three months earlier. Khamenei did not mention Zarif by name, although the Iranian foreign minister was his chief negotiator.

Earlier this year, Zarif tendered his resignation in response to an apparent snub by Khamenei. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a key Iranian ally, made a previously unannounced February 25 visit to Tehran and was pictured meeting Khamenei, Rouhani and IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani but not the top Iranian diplomat. Rouhani refused to accept Zarif’s resignation and Iranian state media later quoted Soleimani as saying Zarif continued to enjoy the support of top officials, “especially” Khamenei.

Amirahmadi, who said he had hundreds of meetings with Zarif when the latter served as Iran’s U.N. ambassador in New York from 2002 to 2007, said he believes the impending U.S. sanctions against the top Iranian diplomat also are a punishment for Zarif’s regular Twitter attacks on Trump and his administration. Zarif has posted 31 critical tweets mentioning Trump by name since the start of this year, out of his more than 120 tweets posted during that time.

“I think Zarif is being sanctioned because he was stupid and naive for posting tweets attacking Trump over the last two years,” Amirahmadi said. “He was directly insulting a president of a major country. He should not have done that.”

Since Mnuchin’s Monday statement about sanctioning Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister has not publicly commented directly on the impending move against him, on Twitter or otherwise.

But in comments to a CNN reporter in Tehran on Wednesday, Zarif said the imposition of U.S. sanctions “on Iranian leadership” has been an “additional insult by the United States against the entire Iranian nation.”

Able to enter US?

It is not clear whether the Trump administration will try to block Zarif from traveling to the United States. In his current role as foreign minister and previous role as ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. authorities have allowed Zarif to travel to and within New York City to participate in U.N. meetings and other diplomacy-related activities, such as U.S. media interviews and speeches to U.S. research institutions. But he has not been permitted to travel to other parts of the United States, as he did while studying at several U.S. universities on a student visa in the 1970s and 80s.

Columbia University researcher Richard Nephew, who served as the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team negotiating with Iran, told BBC Persian that the Trump administration may further limit Zarif’s movements within New York. 

“They can’t block him from speaking at the United Nations, but (they may decide that) he can’t just go around town,” Nephew said.

In a Wednesday email to VOA Persian, Nephew said U.S. sanctions on Zarif also could complicate the Iranian diplomat’s travel to other countries. 

“But (it would be a complication) only in making him have to find alternative means of paying for various services and activities (such as) hotel rooms. I’m quite certain the Iranians are clever enough to deal with this problem, though,” Nephew said.

It also is unclear what financial assets of Zarif will be targeted by the Trump administration. A biography on the irdiplomacy.ir website of former Iranian diplomat Sadegh Kharazi says Zarif was born in Tehran to a “relatively wealthy” family. Zarif’s father, a textile merchant, sent him to the U.S. to begin undergraduate studies in international relations at San Francisco State University in 1977.

The Iranian foreign ministry’s website, which says Zarif was born Jan. 8, 1960, shows that he spent at least 19 years in the United States from 1977 until 2007, when he ended his term as Iranian ambassador to the U.N. During that 30 year period, he earned two degrees in San Francisco, two more at the University of Denver, had two U.S.-born children with his wife, and worked in various roles at the Iranian U.N. mission in New York.

While serving as Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Zarif lived at an Iranian government-owned townhouse on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. But he also lived at another house in New York before becoming an ambassador, said Amirahmadi. 

“Whether it was rented or owned, I don’t know,” he said.

Maysam Behravesh, an Iranian researcher in Middle East studies at Lund University in Sweden, said he doubts Zarif has any property or business in the United States. 

“It would be a liability for him as a career diplomat and negotiator in Iran’s political-security environment,” he told VOA Persian via email.

Sherman, a critic of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, said sanctioning Zarif will not help the U.S. president to achieve his stated goal of negotiating with Iran. 

“Zarif has proven to be an effective communications channel and negotiator who might be able to establish a better relationship and greater peace and security (for the U.S. and Iran),” she said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disputed that notion in a July 2018 speech to the Iranian diaspora in California. 

“The (Iranian) regime’s revolutionary goals and willingness to commit violent acts haven’t produced anyone to lead Iran that can be remotely called a moderate or a statesman,” Pompeo said. “Some believe that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif fit that bill. The truth is they are merely polished front men for the ayatollahs’ international con artistry,” he added.