The United States signalled last week that it has no intention to put its campaign of maximum pressure towards Iran on hold. On 31 July, the US administration took the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif.
The sanctions have included travel restrictions across US borders and the freezing of assets the Iranian minister might have in the United States. A senior administration official said that the US State Department would study on a “case-by-case basis” Zarif’s travel to the United Nations.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement accompanying the designation stressed that the United States is “sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behaviour is completely unacceptable”.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the unusual administration decision by saying that Zarif was sanctioned due to his position as a “key enabler” of the policies of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
However, he made it clear that the Trump administration is still interested in reaching a diplomatic solution to its conflict with Iran through a comprehensive accord that would deal with the “full range of threats posed by Iran”.
He warned that the “campaign of diplomatic isolation and maximum economic pressure will continue” until resolution of the conflict. What was not said or implied is what would happen if the American campaign of maximum pressure does not deliver on its intended objective; namely, forcing Iran to the negotiating table.
The Iranian foreign minister took the decision in his stride, insisting that it won’t have any impact on him because he has no assets in the United States.
The general staff of the Iranian army commented on the American sanctions against Zarif, describing the US administration as “arrogant” and that the sanctions go against “international norms”.
As the foreign minister of Iran, Zarif, who speaks fluent English and has good connections with influential American think tanks, is in role in defending the policies of his country as well as reaching out to the international media, particularly the American media and think tanks.
A couple of weeks ago he was visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York and took this opportunity to defend Iranian positions vis-à-vis a host of regional questions and the nuclear accord of 2015, adding that Iran had not benefited economically after signing it.
In response, Pompeo commented in interview that he would like to address the Iranian people directly, similar to the opportunity that the visit of Zarif to New York offered to the Iranian foreign minister to speak directly to the American people via the media and some think tanks.
In the meantime, the US administration waived 31 July, the same day it imposed sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister, sanctions related to Iran’s civilian nuclear programme.
On Fox Business Network, Ambassador John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, confirmed that the United States has renewed its waiver for the nuclear-related sanctions for another 90 days. He pointed out that Washington is “watching those nuclear activities very, very closely”.
He also reaffirmed that the US won’t permit Iran to obtain “nuclear weapons capability”.
The American waiver will allow Iran to continue working with Russia in transforming the Fordow uranium-enrichment plant into a nuclear physics centre, as well as cooperating with China to convert Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak so it becomes less of a proliferation risk.
The American sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister could be interpreted as a direct response to the test firing by Iran of two intermediate ballistic missiles, the Shahab-3, which has a range of 600 miles, its design of North Korean origin, which took place towards the end of last month.
The United States has been adamant in curtailing the Iranian missile programme and it figures high on the list of American demands if negotiations between Washington and Tehran are to see the light of day anytime soon.
The Iranians firmly believe that it is their right to develop their missile capacities as a defensive measure. They even said that if the United States wants to limit Iran’s missile capabilities, then Washington should stop providing Saudi Arabia and other adversaries of Iran advanced weapons systems.
Zarif tweeted last month that for eight years former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein targeted Iranian cities with missiles and bombs provided by both “East and West”.
Meanwhile, no one exported to Tehran means of self-defence against Iraqi missiles. From the point of view of Iran, its missile programme is defensive in nature.
So far, there are no signs that the American maximum pressure campaign is bearing fruit. On the contrary, the more the growing economic pressures increase, the more is the likelihood that Iranians would become intransigent and more prone to escalate in the Gulf through small and calculated measures to deter the forces arrayed against them.
It is difficult to say what the ceiling of the maximum pressure campaign is. The fact of the matter is that between this campaign, described by Tehran as “economic terrorism”, and direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran there must be a third way, lest by miscalculation on either side, the Middle East and the Gulf would become embroiled in a prolonged quagmire with no possible winners.
The United States should let the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese help it de-escalate diplomatically by lessening the economic pressures on the Iranians in such a way as not to let them off the hook completely and let Tehran accept to negotiate a diplomatic solution to this highly risky and perilous standoff in the Gulf.In the absence of such de-escalation, the chances for security and stability in the Gulf are almost non-existent.
It is heartening to learn through a story published by The New Yorker this week that Senator Rand Paul, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had met with Zarif in New York lately and extended an invitation to the Iranian minister to meet President Trump at the White House. Zarif, according to the New Yorker, said that the decision on this matter is not his to make.
American diplomacy, aided by the White House, should make such a meeting possible by working on certain conditions to make it happen.
One will be to waive some economic and financial sanctions for 90 days to be renewed for the same period if developments warrant it, and secondly the US administration adopt a conciliatory approach towards Iran and especially its supreme leader.
In September, the United Nations will hold its annual General Assembly, an occasion for reextending the invitation of Senator Rand Paul to the foreign minister of Iran to meet with President Trump in New York City under proper conditions.
The Iranians have made clear that they are not interested in taking photos. They want substantive results to come out of such a meeting if it takes place. There is no reason why they should not be accommodated, if the United States, as Pompeo has reiterated, is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No respite