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US holds off on sanctions on Iranian foreign minister

Posted: 9:22 AM, Jul 12, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-12 11:22:13-04

The United States will not impose sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — at least for the time being — two State Department officials confirmed to CNN Thursday.

The move to spare Iran’s top diplomat comes weeks after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters that President Donald Trump had directed him to impose sanctions on Zarif.

Reuters was the first to report the pause on sanctioning Zarif.

According to one official, the decision to reverse course on the intended sanctions was made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the suggestion of career State Department officials. That official said this was an effort to keep the door open for diplomacy. Despite his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, Trump has on numerous occasions expressed a desire to speak with Iranian officials “without preconditions.” Iranian officials have largely dismissed that overture until the US shows Tehran “respect.”

“Iran never negotiates with coercion. You cannot threaten any Iranian and expect them to engage. The way to do it is through respect, not through threats,” Zarif said in an exclusive interview with CNN in late June.

The second State Department official told CNN that the decision to hold off on the sanctions is not a permanent one. They did not offer details about when the administration intends to revisit that decision. Both officials cautioned that Trump could overrule the stay on sanctions at any time.

Asked about the decision not to impose sanctions, a Treasury Department spokesperson referred CNN to a Tuesday call with a senior administration official.

“We’re obviously exploring our various avenues for additional sanctions against Tehran. Obviously, Foreign Minister Zarif is a figure of key interest and we’ll update you on that as we have more information on it,” the official said in response to a question about sanctions on Zarif.

The State Department did not immediately reply for a request for comment on the pause, but typically does not discuss its moves on sanctions.

Despite international efforts to deescalate the situation involving Iran, tensions remain high. Tehran announced this week it had breached the uranium enrichment limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), decreasing its adherence to the landmark nuclear deal. The Trump administration withdrew from that deal in 2018. The UN’s nuclear watchdog on Monday confirmed that Iran had exceeded the enrichment limit. Trump said on Twitter Wednesday that sanctions on Iran will “soon be increased, substantially!” following the breach.

On Wednesday, armed Iranian boats unsuccessfully attempted to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, according to two US officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

In late June, the administration imposed a “hard hitting” round of sanctions that would deny Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his office “and many others” access to financial instruments.

“Today’s actions follow a series of aggressive behaviors by the Iranian regime in recent weeks, including shooting down of US drones,” Trump said at the time. “The supreme leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible of the hostile conduct of the regime. He’s respected within his country. His office oversees the regime’s most brutal instruments including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”