Sanctions Incoherence

The Trump Administration continued its sanctions campaign against senior Iranian officials last week. This time, the target was Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Personally sanctioning the chief diplomat of a foreign country might seem like a drastic and shocking step, but this wasn’t a surprise. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled the administration’s intent to sanction Zarif before the Foreign Minister’s highly-restricted trip to New York for UN meetings in mid-July. Even as the administration was making overtures to the Foreign Minister to visit the White House for what everyone, including Zarif, understood would be a cheap photo-op, the decision to levy sanctions against him had already been made.

It’s worth noting at the outset that individualized sanctions against another nation’s Foreign Minister are entirely pointless from a technical standpoint. It’s unclear whether or not the administration understands this. Virtually no serious Iran or sanctions expert thinks that these measures will have any meaningful impact on Zarif’s finances or behavior. The same was true when the administration placed sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Given that, we can skip the part of the discussion where we discuss the financial impact of these sanctions and instead focus on the symbolism.

From the administration’s point of view, these sanctions are primarily about humiliation. By directly and publicly insulting Iran’s top diplomat, the administration is broadcasting its uninterest in any kind of negotiations process with Iran’s diplomatic corps. This isn’t a guess. As an unnamed official told journalists in a background call in the wake of the sanctions announcement last week, “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker.”

This idea that the foreign minister doesn’t play a meaningful role in Iranian decision making has a long history in U.S.-Iran diplomacy (or lack thereof). Opponents of engagement with Iran often make vague references to power distribution within the Islamic Republic as the reason negotiations with its officials — and particularly those serving within the elected branch of government — can’t be trusted. These critics point to the Supreme Leader’s ultimate authority as justification for doubting any Iranian commitments that do not come directly from him.

To some extent, this is a valid concern, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of a complex and multifaceted Iranian political structure. This isn’t the time or place for an Iranian civics lesson, but dismissing an entire faction of the Iranian government because it doesn’t fit some preconceived notion of Iranian authority is willfully ignorant at best, and deliberately so at worst. And herein lies the pure incoherence of the Trump approach to Iran: If the reason for sanctioning the Foreign Minister stems from his lack of real authority on any matters of value, then why did the administration also sanction Ayatollah Khamenei back June?

An exasperated Zarif pointed out the absurdity of the American position in a speech earlier this week. “America cannot claim it wants to negotiate [with Iran],” Zarif said. “It is America who has left the negotiation table. It is America who has sanctioned the foreign minister of the country it wants to negotiate with. It is America who has sanctioned the highest figure in the Islamic Republic, meaning the Supreme Leader. Who does it want to negotiate with?”

Whatever the justification, the result is the same. The United States has, by now, systematically eliminated all potential Iranian negotiating partners. In the process, they’ve also eradicated any remaining hope of rebuilding trust or goodwill. Of course, that has not stopped administration officials, as well as the President himself, from continuing to profess a commitment to the diplomatic process. But if they think they’re deceiving anyone as to their real intentions, they’re only fooling themselves.

These contradictions reside comfortably in the administration psyche, but that’s only because the consequences of cognitive dissonance are relatively benign. Meanwhile, the effects of the actual U.S. sanctions — the ones targeting the economy — are wreaking havoc on the lives of everyday Iranians.

The only way any of this makes sense is if you accept the fact that the Trump administration’s strategy — to the extent there is one — was never to engage in good faith. It’s better to think of it as a hodgepodge of conflicting actions and demands, all vaguely based around the abstract ideas of pain and humiliation until they finally bend the knee.

Capitulation remains the point.

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