Trump administration sanctions Iranian diplomat; Feinstein derides 'mistake'

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it would impose sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a move that comes amid escalating tensions between Tehran and the West and could further erode an already fraught relationship.

A Treasury Department statement said Zarif was being sanctioned because he "implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s supreme leader and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the move a "mistake." She added: "I’ve known Foreign Minister Zarif for more than 15 years. While we’ve had our differences of opinion, he’s always been a capable diplomat. President Trump says he pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement to force Iran back to the negotiating table, but this move limits the opportunity to do exactly that.

"This doesn’t move us closer to peace, it further escalates an already tense situation."

"The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  “At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.” 

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In this Nov. 9, 2013, photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, leaves following a meeting with E.U. foreign ministers in Geneva. (Jason Reed/Poo Photo via APl, File)

In this Nov. 9, 2013, photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, leaves following a meeting with E.U. foreign ministers in Geneva. (Jason Reed/Poo Photo via APl, File)

Zarif responded to the sanctions via Twitter.

"The US' reason for designating me is that I am Iran's "primary spokesperson around the world"/Is the truth really that painful?/It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda," he tweeted.

The sanctions freeze all U.S. property and assets owned by Zarif -- he doesn't have any -- and bars anyone or any entity in the U.S. from dealing with him. Those who do could themselves be subject to sanctions.

Under the terms, all "property and interests 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 [Office of Foreign Assets Controls]," a Treasury Department statement said.

In addition, Zarif is banned from traveling to the U.S., though Iranian officials are already barred from doing so.

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The sanctions had been expected since last month when Mnuchin said Trump had directed him to sanction Zarif.

Zarif recently got into a war of words with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the secretary offered to visit the Islamic Republic to give Iranians "the truth" about the clerics who rule them.

On Wednesday, Pompeo called Zarif a "key enabler" of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s policies, which support terrorism, the jailing and torturing of Iranians, the fueling of conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and, in recent weeks, the expansion of Iran's nuclear program.

“Iran’s Foreign Ministry is not merely the diplomatic arm of the Islamic Republic but also a means of advancing many of the Supreme Leader’s destabilizing policies,” he said in a statement. “Foreign Minister Zarif and the Foreign Ministry he runs take their direction from the supreme leader and his office. Foreign Minister Zarif is a key enabler of Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies throughout the region and around the world. The designation of Javad Zarif today reflects this reality.”

The U.S. placed sanctions on Khamenei in June following the downing of an American drone.

A senior administration official told The Washington Post the sanctions would not limit the U.S. from negotiating with Iran, if both sides ever decide to come to the table.

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"If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with someone who is a significant decisionmaker," the officials told the paper.

Zarif met with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky earlier this month to discuss restarting nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran.

Fox News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.