WASHINGTON • The United States has decided not to impose sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for now, two sources familiar with the matter said, in a sign Washington may be holding a door open for diplomacy.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had said on June 24 that Mr Zarif would be blacklisted that week, an unusual public stance because the US typically does not preview such decisions to keep its targets from moving assets out of the country's jurisdiction.
Blacklisting Iran's chief negotiator would also be unusual because it could impede any US effort to use diplomacy to resolve its disagreements with Teheran over the country's nuclear programme, regional activities and missile testing.
The sources who spoke on Thursday did not give specific reasons for the decision. The move comes after two months in which US-Iranian tensions have soared over attacks on tankers in the Gulf that the US blames on Iran, and Iran's downing of an American drone that prompted preparations for a US retaliatory air strike that was called off minutes before it was due to hit.
"Cooler heads prevailed. We... saw it as not necessarily helpful," said a source familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had opposed designating Mr Zarif "for the time being".
In a sign of how close Washington came to taking action, the US Treasury internally circulated a draft press release announcing sanctions on the Iranian Foreign Minister.
Mr Zarif is expected to attend a ministerial meeting at the United Nations next week on sustainable development goals, which aims to tackle issues including conflict, hunger, gender equality and climate change by 2030. To do so, the US would have to grant him a visa, another sign that Washington is holding off on sanctions for now.
US-Iran ties have deteriorated since President Donald Trump last year unilaterally withdrew from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, and decided in early May to use US sanctions to try and eliminate Iran's oil exports entirely.
AVOIDING A CONTENTIOUS MOVE
Cooler heads prevailed. We... saw it as not necessarily helpful.
A SOURCE FAMILIAR WITH THE MATTER, on why the US is holding off on sanctions against Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Mr Trump's move to cut off Iran's oil sales led Teheran to start violating parts of the nuclear pact, which was designed to limit its ability to develop weapons in return for relief from economic sanctions that had crippled its economy.
Asked why Mr Zarif had yet to be sanctioned, a Treasury spokesman referred to a comment on Tuesday by a senior Trump administration official, who told reporters: "We're obviously exploring our various avenues for additional sanctions against Teheran. Obviously, Foreign Minister Zarif is a figure of key interest and we'll update you... as we have more information."
State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus on Thursday said Washington wants a diplomatic resolution and repeated Mr Trump's comment that he is willing to meet Iran "without preconditions".
Mr Mnuchin did not say what sanctions would hit Mr Zarif. On the day he spoke, he was briefing reporters on US sanctions that aimed to block Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from access to the US financial system or assets under US jurisdiction. On July 4, The New York Times quoted Mr Zarif as saying in an e-mail that he did not own any property or have any bank accounts outside Iran. "So I have no personal problem with possible sanctions," he said.
Mr Trump has said he is open to negotiating with Iran. However, former US officials said they see no signs his administration is interested in talks on terms other than Iran's capitulation to US demands.
These include Teheran ending uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fissile material for atomic bombs, and giving UN nuclear inspectors total access to sites throughout the country.
If Washington wanted to get into a negotiation with Teheran, it could send other conciliatory signals.
One would be to allow a quiet stabilisation of Iran's oil exports, which stood at 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) before Mr Trump abandoned the deal, and have since fallen to about 300,000 bpd.
Rather than renew sanctions waivers to allow nations such as China and India to keep buying Iran's oil, Washington could also turn a blind eye to continued purchases, the former US officials said.