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U.S. Sanctions Iranian Foreign Minister


The latest Iranian to face U.S. sanctions is Iran's foreign minister. Mohammad Javad Zarif rose to prominence in the years when Iran was negotiating a nuclear agreement with the United States. Last month, we asked Zarif if the U.S. withdrawal from that deal wrecked his credibility at home.


MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: Engagement has lost credibility at home. People don't look at engagement with the international community - the United States for one reason, for not keeping its word, the Europeans for another reason, for not being able to stand on their word. So yeah, engagement is losing credibility. And by extension, I'm losing credibility at home.

INSKEEP: So Zarif paid a price at home, and now the U.S. wants him to pay abroad. The Trump administration describes Iran's chief diplomat as an apologist for a dangerous regime and banned him from doing business in the United States.

Dennis Ross is on the line. He is a longtime U.S. diplomat who's served presidents of both parties and focused on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, among other areas. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Good to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Is it a good idea to sanction diplomats?

ROSS: Well, I think if you want to talk to diplomats, if you want to find diplomatic solutions to problems - if you exclude talking to them, you just make it a whole lot harder to be able to somehow find a way to resolve the problems or the crises that you may be involved in.

INSKEEP: Meaning that Zarif is a conduit to Iran - and if the Trump administration wants to talk to Iran, which in fact they've said they do, Zarif might be somebody they'd rather go to.

ROSS: Well, I think the word conduit is actually a good one. He's not the decision-maker. He was never the decision-maker. He obviously had some potential to influence the decision-making process. But the fact is since he was the representative and has been and continues to be the representative - at least as a foreign minister of the regime - if you exclude talking to him and at the same time you're saying you want to engage the Iranians, as the president says he wants to talk to them without preconditions, when you exclude talking to Zarif - when you sanction him, you've just made it more difficult to do what the president says he wants to do.

INSKEEP: Does it exclude talking to Zarif if you sanction him?

ROSS: We obviously could provide a waiver. But the truth is if you've sanctioned him, basically you're saying this is not someone that you're going to deal with.

INSKEEP: Now, there's a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explaining this decision. And let me read a part of it. It says, (reading) Iran's foreign ministry is not merely the diplomatic arm of the Islamic Republic but also a means of advancing many of the supreme leader's destabilizing policies. Foreign Minister Zarif and the foreign ministry he runs take their direction from the supreme leader and his office.

Is that correct?

ROSS: Yes, I think it is correct. Zarif has never been an independent agent. He certainly is not someone, as I said before, who is making the policy. That doesn't mean he isn't someone who could influence the policy. But the supreme leader is the ultimate decision-maker in Iran.

Obviously, when you're engaging in a negotiation, you want to know that who it is you're talking to is authorized by the supreme leader. That's something, obviously, that the Obama administration, when it pursued diplomacy with the Iranians, wanted to be certain that they were talking to an authoritative official. Zarif was, obviously, authorized to represent the regime in the negotiations.

So I think, again, if the Trump administration, as the president says, wants to resolve things diplomatically, wants to do a new deal with the Iranians, they've just made it harder to do that because the question becomes - well, who are they going to talk to?

INSKEEP: Is it at least sensible, from the Trump administration point of view, to continuously pile more sanctions, continuously pile more pressure on Iran because the administration - well, depending on who you talk with in the administration - maybe would like that government to change someday or, at a minimum, would like that government to come and talk to the United States about a deal that is much more advantageous from the U.S. point of view?

ROSS: The Trump administration has adopted a policy of maximum pressure, and there is a certain logic to it. Historically, when the Iranians - when this regime, the Islamic Republic - whenever it, in fact, has faced real domestic price or real domestic cost as it measures it, it has found a way to try to reduce the pressures on the outside. There's a long history of that. The problem is when you apply maximum pressure, you also have to leave the Iranians a way out. It's not clear right now the administration's really leaving the Iranians a way out.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for your insights - always appreciate them.

ROSS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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