Sanctioning Iran's foreign minister isn't as dire as it may sound

Sanctioning Iran's foreign minister isn't as dire as it may sound
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The international community has been in an uproar over the Trump administration sanctioning Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The argument is that sanctioning Zarif is akin to sanctioning diplomacy itself — the final nail in the coffin of dialogue with Tehran. While the rhetoric may be heated, the reality is less so. Three inconvenient truths abound: There’s precedent for Iran’s chief negotiators to come from outside its foreign ministry; while Zarif may have been effective at getting to yes with the P5+1 in 2015, that’s not necessarily the case in 2019; and the mullahcracy’s envoys have faced far worse penalties than sanctions.

Zarif is an accessible and affable crutch for Western journalists and negotiators. But he isn’t the longest-serving chief diplomat of Iran — that would be Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as foreign minister for 16 years under then-Presidents Ali Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. To date, he isn’t even the runner-up — that would be Kamal Kharazi, who served as Iran’s representative to the world during the presidency of Reformist Mohammad Khatami. Zarif ranks third in the hall of longevity of the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry.

But being Iran’s chief diplomat hasn’t historically translated into being Iran’s chief negotiator. Before Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in 2013, the chief nuclear negotiator was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — Hassan Rouhani, Ali Larijani, and Saed Jalili were all Iran’s nuclear point-men while Kamal Kharazi, Manouchehr Mottaki, and Ali Akbar Salehi served as foreign minister, respectively. The SNSC is responsible for formulating Iranian foreign and security policy across different organs — both elected and unelected. That means the chief justice and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — who both report to the supreme leader — sit on the SNSC under the chair, Iran’s elected president.

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The current secretary of the SNSC is Ali Shamkhani. He has a broader perspective than Zarif — being an ethnic Arab, the former commander of the IRGC’s Navy, a defense minister under a reformist president, and having served as the supreme leader’s military adviser. Whereas Zarif spent most of his career in Iran’s foreign ministry, Shamkhani is an ethnic minority in Iran and has management experience spanning Iran’s armed state, deep state, and popular state. Additionally, Shamkhani has been the only Iranian awarded Saudi Arabia’s Order of Merit of Abdulaziz Al Saud since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and lived for a time in Los Angeles. Such a status may provide him with more credibility, constituency, and cache to be a negotiator on all issues — nuclear and non-nuclear — than the West’s favorite diplomat Zarif. In fact, there are signs some U.S. government officials may view Shamkhani as their man in Tehran: In January, Shamkhani announced that that while he was in Afghanistan, U.S. officials approached him seeking talks with the Iranian government.

But there are other options — the supreme leader has often employed Iran’s foreign ministers as advisors once their service in Iran’s elected governments concluded. Thus, Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi remain on the scene. Velayati arguably commands a more influential position within Tehran than Zarif — and that’s chief foreign policy advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, unlike Iran’s president, is constitutionally vested with the final word on international affairs. It’s Velayati who has been dispatched on sensitive missions representing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei —namely Russia and Syria. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was whisked away to Tehran to meet with Ayatollah Khamenei, his visit triggered Zarif’s resignation because he wasn’t in the room with the supreme leader. But the Ayatollah was well-staffed — Velayati was at his side. Kamal Kharazi is another such advisor to Khamenei — in addition to serving as the chairman of his Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, which functions as an advisory board and think tank for the Office of the Supreme Leader.

Lastly, Zarif is not the first Iranian diplomat to be essentially declared as persona non grata by members of the international community. One of his predecessors — Ali Akbar Velayati —served on a Committee on Special Operations in Iran (alongside the supreme leader, the president, and other officials) which ordered the assassination of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992. Yet Velayati served as foreign minister until August 1997 — months after a German court implicated him — and has served since then as the supreme leader’s chief international envoy.

There’s more — Velayati played a similar role in Iran’s 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association. In 2006, well after he left the foreign ministry, Argentina issued a warrant for his arrest and has requested Velayati’s extradition from China and Russia during his official visits — yet he’s remained at Ayatollah Khamenei’s side as his aide-de-camp on foreign policy. If an arrest warrant didn’t signal the death knell of diplomacy, neither will sanctions.

Some observers will argue that the United States can’t choose its Iranian counterparts and that representatives with bloodstained records like Ali Akbar Velayati are unacceptable. While that may be true, these three inconvenient truths counsel against viewing Zarif as having a monopoly on Iran’s foreign policy apparatus. Likewise, if President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE can sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnJapan must keep America engaged Trump on North Korean projectile launches: Kim 'likes testing missiles' North Korea fires two more projectiles into sea MORE, anything is possible. Zarif may be a singular Iranian statesman abroad, but at home, he’s just another cog in the machine of state.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Follow him on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.