Iranians greet latest US sanctions with mockery

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been targeted in the latest American penalties, is revered by some as a singular spiritual authority.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been targeted in the latest American penalties, is revered by some as a singular spiritual authority.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - Iranian officials have railed for two months against the Trump administration's sanctions blocking their oil sales as "economic warfare". But the response to the latest American penalties imposed on Monday (June 24), which targeted the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior leaders, was more measured, even mocking.

"Ridiculous", declared a headline from the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

"Are there really any sanctions that the US hasn't imposed against our country and people in the past 40 years?" a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, asked reporters in Teheran. "And what did it achieve?"

An Iranian calling himself K. Jafari wrote in a widely circulated tweet: "The only people left to sanction are me, my dad and our neighbour's kid. The foreign ministry should share Trump's phone number so we can call him and give him our names."

In contrast to the threats and bluster of Teheran's previous responses to the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign, Iranians across the political spectrum dismissed the latest embargoes on Monday as little more than insults.

Both hardliners and reformers argued that the new sanctions would have little practical impact, aside from undermining Mr Trump's repeated assertions that he is seeking to renew talks with Teheran, if only to restrict its nuclear weapons programme.

"Sanctions announced today officially closed all the windows and doors for US and Iran talks," Hassan Soleimani, the editor-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard's Mashregh News Agency, said in a telephone interview from Teheran.

 
 

"If Trump was hoping for negotiations with Iran, he can now only dream about it."

Mr Khamenei, the most prominent individual targeted in the latest sanctions, for example, never travels outside Iran and the conglomerate he controls, Setad, has little reliance on international banking.

The new sanctions, which prohibit him from entering the United States or doing business with American financial institutions, will have almost no impact on the ayatollah.

The same appears to be true for most of the other individuals sanctioned on Monday. Several are senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard. The Trump administration in April designated the Guard as a terrorist organisation, and that prohibited them from entering the United States or doing business with Americans.

Yet the gesture may still come at a cost. Under the Iranian political system, Mr Khamenei's personal assent is required to open any talks with the United States, and the new sanctions are unlikely to win him over. What is more, in addition to being Iran's paramount political leader, Mr Khamenei is revered by some Iranians as a singular spiritual authority as well, and those Iranians may also be offended.

The sanctions on Mr Khamenei and other top officials were a "clear violation of Iran's sovereignty and against international norms", Abbasali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, the powerful body that supervises the work of elected officials, said on Twitter.

Most startling to Iranians was Mr Trump's order to add sanctions that target Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Mr Zarif was educated in the United States and within the Iranian political system he is considered a moderate - the kind of figure hard-liners might seek to cast out and previous US administrations had sought to cultivate. As foreign minister, he would also be the main conduit for any negotiations with Teheran.

Both reformers and hardliners said on Monday that the order to sanction Mr Zarif severely undermined Mr Trump's repeated assertions that he is seeking to reopen talks with Iran about a revised deal to limit its nuclear weapons programme.

"The important point about sanctioning Zarif is the reality that the US is not really after negotiations," tweeted Ali Gholizadeh, a reform advocate who was jailed in the crackdown after a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2008.

In a tweet on Monday, Mr Zarif called the latest sanctions evidence that the hawks in the Trump administration now "thirst for war".

 
 

Cutting off Mr Zarif will only embolden the Revolutionary Guard and other hardline elements of the military to steer Iranian foreign policy towards more confrontation with the United States, said Mr Soleiman of the Guard's news agency.

Washington, he said, had now silenced the most moderate voices within Iran's government and those most likely to advocate talks.

How the Iranian leaders might respond in the coming days remains to be seen. Even before the addition of the new sanctions targeting individuals, the Iranian economy was under severe pressure from the previous round of restrictions and penalties.

Announced in April, those sanctions sought to cut off all Iranian oil sales, targeting the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.

It was in response to those sanctions that the Iranian government announced that for the first time in four years it would restart the steps that could lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. Iran had agreed to restrictions limiting its nuclear research as part of a 2015 deal with the United States and other international powers. Mr Trump withdrew from the deal last year with a vow to negotiate a stricter one.

Since the Trump administration imposed the oil sanctions, the White House has also accused Iran of using naval mines to damage six tankers in two incidents in the waters around the Persian Gulf.

Last week, the Revolutionary Guard also shot down a US surveillance drone, and the United States came within minutes of carrying out a retaliatory missile strike against Iran before Mr Trump called it off.

Still, even as tensions appeared to build with the addition of more sanctions, some senior Iranian officials imagined what a new round of negotiations might look like.

"US's claim that it wants negotiations without preconditions, while it increases sanctions and pressure, is not acceptable," said Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, who is also considered a moderate voice within the political system.

If Washington wants something more than the existing nuclear deal, "then it must offer us more than the deal with international guarantees", Mr Ashena said.