Word of US President Donald Trump’s decision to sanction Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did not seem to rattle the government in Tehran. Zarif’s own reaction, that the US is “isolating itself,” suggested that Iran would not be intimidated.
Iranian officials echoed one another, saying that the United States was afraid of Zarif’s eloquence. President Hassan Rouhani said that the “White House is frightened by his diplomatic capabilities.” Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told Iranian media that the US has sanctioned Zarif in order to “suppress his logic and his eloquent and persuasive language.” Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said that the US does not have the ability to counter Zarif’s arguments.
There is merit to this view. The buzz in Washington suggests that both Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were unhappy with Zarif’s interactions with the US media. Zarif, who studied in the United States, is comfortable with television cameras and has proven more than capable of making a rational case against the US unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
Zarif is indeed urbane and eloquent, but those are not his only strengths. He has the additional advantage of having the facts on his side. United Nations agencies all say that Iran has confirmed that it will abide by the terms of the JCPOA, and that there is no reason for unilateral sanctions imposed by the US. This is a view accepted by the European Union. Trump’s main problem is that the United States does not have a legitimate case to make against Iran.
No one, neither the Europeans nor Russia and China nor indeed many of the Gulf Arab states, wants an escalation of what is a nascent war against Iran. They know that if the US mounts an enormous assault on Iran, the war will widen from Lebanon to Afghanistan. No rational person would support this.
President Rouhani made it clear to the United States that he could not understand who, other than his Foreign Minister, could be expected to speak for his country on international matters. Part of Iran’s goal here is to maintain its sovereignty and dignity, and to select a new foreign minister would mean that Iran had buckled under US pressure. This is not going to happen. The Iranians are not going to replace Zarif.
But the Zarif issue is actually a red herring. Even before the sanctions on him personally, the United States showed no appetite for diplomacy. Iran spent several years negotiating with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as with Germany and the European Union, to produce the JCPOA, which was then ratified by the United Nations in 2015. After the US withdrew from the deal, Iran continued to indicate its desire for a diplomatic solution while Washington refused to come to the table.
The problem facing any negotiations is that the US position is untenable. The US wants to prevent Iran from exercising its right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) to enrich uranium even to low levels (4.5 %, which is far from the 90% enrichment needed for a nuclear weapon). It is this impossible position by Washington that stands in the way of a diplomatic solution. Until Washington accepts Iran’s right under international law to enrich uranium for energy-generating purposes, there will be no permanent deal.
The Europeans indicated quickly that they were unhappy with the sanctions on Zarif. Carlos Martin Ruíz de Gordejuela, a spokesman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said that they regretted the decision. The Europeans say that they will continue to work with Zarif to maintain open diplomatic channels.
Europe’s tolerance toward Trump’s shenanigans is being stretched, albeit to nowhere near its limits. The European Union, despite noises about its practical need for Iranian oil, has been unwilling to mobilize any political opinion on behalf of either the ailing JCPOA or against the wide unilateral US sanctions now on Iran.
Zarif has been working hard to build various coalitions around the world to prevent the United States from controlling the narrative. At the recently concluded Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) ministerial meeting in Caracas, Zarif held center stage. NAM, whose 120 member countries make it the largest political bloc inside the United Nations, has long opposed American unilateralism. In Caracas, they welcomed Zarif’s declaration that unilateral sanctions by the US against Iran and Venezuela are a form of “economic terrorism.”
A subset of NAM members formed a group of 25 countries that have come together to oppose directly US unilateral sanctions, not only against Iran but also against Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and elsewhere. This group has moved slowly to consolidate itself.
Zarif has also traveled to and made contact with countries along the Persian Gulf, on a mission to forge a non-aggression pact. Iraq and Oman have indicated that they would join such a pact, and Kuwait may also join. Furthermore, sources say that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are contemplating entry into the pact. All of these countries will have a lot to lose if a war breaks out against Iran, but the surprise here is the UAE, which is a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Recently, the coast guards from Iran and the UAE held a joint meeting – the first in six years.
Zarif and the Iranians have been forging a formidable set of alliances designed to put a moat around the possibility of war against Iran. If close US allies such as Qatar and the UAE – both of whom host US military bases – have indicated a readiness to sign non-aggression agreements with Iran, then Washington faces a problem. The sanctions against Zarif are not merely due to his eloquence on US television. He is being sanctioned to send a message to those US allies who have become part of these new platforms.
The United States has walked itself into a corner. By sanctioning Iran, it suggests that it is not interested in diplomacy.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.