Part II: White House on Iran Diplomacy

August 1, 2019

On July 31, the Trump administration provided a detailed briefing of sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the potential of U.S. diplomacy with Tehran.
 

Senior Administration Briefing on Iran

  
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The reason that we're here is that we are going to designate the Islamic Republic of Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, today, acting on the authorities established by President Trump's executive order sanctioning the Supreme Leader of Iran and the Office of the Supreme Leader.  And I will leave the details of that designation to my esteemed Treasury colleagues.
 
Zarif is the international face of this regime, spearheading propaganda and disinformation campaigns in support of Tehran's nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and terrorist network.  Zarif also defends the regime's persecution of the Iranian people, having recently endorsed their abhorrent practice of executing gay people, as well as the regime's suppression of free speech, having acted as the apologist for their cruel and unjust detention of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian between 2014 and '16.
 
Zarif's office functions as an extension of the Supreme Leader's Office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a designated foreign terrorist organization, and also is designed to spread the regime's malign influence.
 
While the United States has historically placed a high priority on preserving space for diplomacy, there are limits to our patience when a regime so routinely flouts these protocols.
 
After all, the Islamic Republic began by taking more than 50 credentialed U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.  It routinely attacks diplomatic facilities.  And just last summer, one of Zarif's own credentialed diplomats was apprehended for plotting a bomb attack in Paris.
 
For far too long, he has been indulged as the reasonable and credible official representative of Iran.  And today, President Trump decided enough is enough. 
 
 We will continue to build on our maximum pressure campaign until Iran abandons its reckless foreign policy that threatens the United States and our allies.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So as was already mentioned day, OFAC took action against Zarif, and we did so pursuant to the new Executive Order 13876, because Zarif acted or purported to act for, or on behalf of, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
 
Just to give you a background on the new executive order: On June 24, 2019, the President issued Executive Order 13876, imposing sanctions on the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Supreme Leader's Office, and authorizing sanctions on others associated with the Supreme Leader.
 
Concurrently, Treasury, at that time, added the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, to our Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. 
 
This executive order was signed by the President in light of the actions of the government of Iran and Iranian-backed proxies, particularly those taken to destabilize the Middle East, promote international terrorism, and advance Iran's ballistic missile program and Iran's irresponsible and provocative actions in and over international waters, including the targeting of military assets and civilian vessels.
 
Today's OFAC designation of Zarif is our first designation pursuant to this executive order.  Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran's Supreme Leader and is the regime's primary spokesperson around the world.  The United States is sending a clear message to the regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable.
 
Also, at the same time the Iranian regime denied Iranian citizens access to social media, Zarif himself spread the regime's propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.
 
While OFAC is taking today's action against Zarif under Executive Order 13876, this new authority, additional information, indicates -- the authority's additional information indicates Zarif oversees a foreign ministry that has coordinated with one of the regime's most nefarious state entities, the IRGC-Quds Force, which, of course, is designated pursuant to terrorism and human rights authorities.
 
Zarif's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its high-ranking officials have engaged in and funded efforts to influence elections, some of which have involved the Quds Force.  Additionally, senior officials of Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought to facilitate the release of two Quds Force operatives from a foreign country by making payments to foreign judiciary officials.
 
All property, and interest in property, of this individual that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC.  OFAC's regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within -- or transiting -- the United States that involve any property, or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.
 
And, in addition, persons that knowingly provide significant support to the individual designated today may themselves be exposed to designations.  Furthermore, any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction on behalf of him could be subject to U.S. correspondent account or payable-through sanctions.
 
   
Q    I'm wondering if you have any information, evidence, that Zarif actually has any property or investments, connections, to the U.S. that would be reportable under this action today. 
    

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So that's not the kind of information that we would typically comment on. 
 
Q   Can you tell us practically what the travel restrictions are going to be?  It sounds like it's going to prohibit him from going pretty much anywhere, since contact with other people is going to expose them.  But can you spell that out for us? Also, if you can just elaborate a little bit on why there was the delay from the initial announcement that Secretary Mnuchin made a couple of weeks ago, versus now just rolling the sanctions out officially. 
    
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On the question regarding travel -- specifically travel to the United Nations, for example -- State Department will evaluate specific circumstances related to this designation on a case-by-case basis, consistent with existing laws and obligations.  And this includes the United Nations Headquarters Agreement.  The United States will continue to uphold our obligations under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement. 
 
Regarding other travel to the United States, I would just say that eligible officials traveling for official United Nations duties would be immune from arrest while exercising their functions and during their travel to and from the United Nations. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Obviously there's been no -- to our knowledge, as my State Department colleague was just saying, there's not been an application for a visa.  There have been grounds to deny them in the past.  It happened in '88 with Yasser Arafat.  And the Iranians also have a history of trying to really push the boundaries with the courtesies we routinely extend them for the United Nations.
 
I think, in 2014, they tried to nominate one of the 1979 hostage-takers to be their perm rep in New York.  And Congress acted to block that action.  So, you know, obviously this designation indicates a fairly high degree of skepticism about him. And for the delay, taking these actions -- which are very serious -- this is obviously a highly unusual action.  Sometimes the process just takes a little time. 
    
Q    Can you talk a little bit more about the back-and-forth as to whether to go ahead with these sanctions or not? 
    
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're not at liberty to divulge internal deliberations.  Obviously, you know, all of the administration comes to an issue like this with their own perspective based on their particular responsibilities.  And, as is our routine practice, all of those perspectives and concerns are heard, and then, you know, a decision is reached. 
 

Q    I thought Zarif was the point of contact for the nuclear negotiations.  If you sanction him, who are you going to negotiate with?
 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  He was the point of contact for the previous administration’s nuclear negotiations.  You might have noticed we actually withdrew from the JCPOA a little over a year ago.  So we do not consider him to be our primary point of contact. 
 
In addition, I think if we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker.  I think Zarif, who -- it was in the news this week that he wrote a complaining letter to the Supreme Leader because he felt he had not been portrayed in a suitably dignified fashion on some Iranian television show -- would not be the President’s selected point of contact.
 

Q    I have a question regarding Emmanuel Macron’s offer to mediate.  So do you find this channel of indirect communication helpful? 

 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  President Trump has been very open that he is ready to speak to the senior leadership in Tehran and that he has certainly not prevented any of our friends or allies from communicating with them as well.  But I wouldn’t say that one channel is any more or less productive than Prime Minister Abe’s visit, for example.
 

Q   I just wanted to know: Why is the strategy with Iran and North Korea so different?  Why not create more dialogue with Iran?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’ve offered to create dialogue with Iran.  I actually think the strategies are remarkably similar.  You might have noticed no sanctions have been relieved on North Korea.  The President has remained staunch on that.  And certainly, if -- he has demonstrated by his willingness to meet with Chairman Kim that he is absolutely sincere in his offers of dialogue.  The Iranians have chosen not to accept them.
 
Q    The U.S. says it’s eager to reach a diplomatic solution with Iran.  How would you respond to those who would say that, by taking this action against Iran’s top diplomat, it’s not in fact interested in a diplomatic solution?
 
And just a second question: I was wondering if this, in any way, is an effort to prevent some of the President’s other allies, such as Rand Paul, from interacting with Zarif -- other allies who have fought to increase dialogue with Iran.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:   I think, on Zarif, what is the key issue is that he has had this veneer -- masquerade, if you will -- of being the sincere and reasonable interlocutor for the regime. 
 
Our point today is that he is no such thing.  We have granted him every courtesy.  We have allowed him to exercise the right to free speech that he -- that that regime routinely denies to its own citizens. 
 
I think particularly the actions I highlighted in my opening remarks -- his recent defense of execution of homosexuals, his 2015 defense of the imprisonment of Jason Rezaian -- are reprehensible and demonstrate the degree which he functions as a propaganda minister, not a foreign minister.
 

And did you have a second question?  Oh, the Rand Paul question.  As with President Macron or Prime Minister Abe, the President has placed no restrictions on elected officials having conversations with foreign counterparts. 
 
Q    Do you have any updates on the sanctions and their effects on trade with India?  Because, every once in a while, we get the media reports from India that there is a dialogue going on between India and Iran to deal with the trade to their currencies.  And it's always -- and then there is no denial that it will not be.  So, do you have any updates on the sanctions -- oil and other trades?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think we would not speak, obviously, for the government of India.  We have been highly gratified by cooperation from a great friend and partner like India, and even less well-aligned countries such as China, in making the rather obvious choice that the United States would be the business partner of choice, not Iran. 
 
You might've seen an open source yesterday.  They're estimating Iranian exports of oil for July at 100,000 barrels per day, which is down considerably from the previous historic low of, I believe, 781,000.  I'll have to confirm that number for you.  But, obviously, this is a restriction like they've never seen before.  They have, for that reason, very little to offer in terms of being a trading partner. 
 
And so the United States just continues to be appreciative, particularly of India's cooperation, and continues to be very mindful of India's legitimate energy needs and that we are very happy as a major energy producer to contribute to what we see as an ample supply to the global market that can keep India amply supplied with energy. 
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We've been all over the world very carefully making sure that all of our partners and allies and companies around the world understand what the consequences are of violating our sanctions, where the money -- where the revenue -- when they do trade with Iran, where the revenue would otherwise be going to. We've been very explicit about the need to ensure that sanctionable activity has ceased.  And, as my colleague said, I think we're getting very important results there.
  
Q    Can you confirm reports that the nuclear waivers due to expire in the next day -- or two, it might be -- will be extended?  And if so, can you shed any light on the rationale? And just a quick unrelated question: Can you comment on reports Hamza bin Laden was killed in Iran?
 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I refer to State on the nuclear waivers.  And we’re not going to comment on the bin Laden story.