Foreign Minister Zarif also offers to hold talks with rival Saudi Arabia, and tells US’ Pompeo not to come to Tehran.
In its latest move aimed at ratcheting up its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, Washington on Wednesday said it was imposing sanctions on Mohammad Javad Zarif for acting on behalf of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who is also subject to recently-imposed US sanctions.
In a televised address on Thursday, Rouhani said the US was “resorting to childish behaviour … They were claiming ever day ‘We want to talk, with no preconditions’ … and then they sanction the foreign minister.”
The US, which last year unilaterally withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015, has previously proposed unconditional talks with Tehran – even as it reimposed punishing economic sanctions, including measures aimed at slashing Iran’s oil exports to zero.
In his speech, Rouhani also accused the US of being “afraid” of Zarif, who recently gave a series of wide-ranging interviews to foreign media in New York.
In one of them, Zarif hit back at US President Donald Trump‘s call for new nuclear negotiations that encompass Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and accused Washington of bringing the Middle East to the brink of “explosion” by selling arms to allies in the Gulf.
“They are afraid of our foreign minister’s interviews,” Rouhani said. “It is completely clear that the foundations of the White House have been shaken by the words and logic of an informed, devoted and diplomatic individual”.
“Our enemies are so helpless that they have lost the ability to act and think wisely”.
Amid rising frictions, fears of a direct US-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several suspected attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of a US surveillance drone, and planned US air raids on Iran last month that Trump called off at the last minute.
In a statement announcing the sanctions against Zarif, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world”.
Zarif brushed off the sanctions on Twitter, saying the US move indicated that Washington saw him as a “threat”.
“It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran,” he said.
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.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 31, 2019
The highly unusual action of penalising the top diplomat of another country comes a month after Trump signed an executive order placing sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the time, the US had said it was also considering sanctions against Zarif.
The Trump administration said it would make decisions on whether to grant Zarif a travel visa, including for trips to the United Nations, on a case-by-case basis, leaving open the possibility that he might not attend the annual UN General Assembly in September.
Zarif last visited the UN in New York last month, but his movement was restricted by the administration to a small area near the world body’s headquarters.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said that the latest move was seen in Iran as a reflection of the US’s inability to understand “how the Iranian system works”.
“The idea that by sanctioning the foreign minister, that they will get to deal with a more powerful person in the system to talk to is really absurd,” she said.
A senior US official reiterated that Trump was open to talks with Iran, but said the administration did not consider Zarif to be a key decision-maker.
The announcement of sanctions against Zarif comes as the US, in a mixed message to Tehran, extended waivers allowing foreign firms to work at Iranian nuclear facilities without penalties for another 90 days.
The US State Department said the waiver extension would help preserve oversight of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme.
On Wednesday, Zarif said that Iran may further cut its commitments under the nuclear deal unless European partners move to protect it from US sanctions by ensuring that it can sell oil and receive income.
Zarif also said Tehran was ready to negotiate with regional rival Saudi Arabia. He added, however, that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was not welcome in Iran.
“You don’t need to come to Iran,” Zarif told reporters, addressing Pompeo, describing the US secretary of state’s offer to visit Tehran and address the Iranian people as a “hypocritical gesture”.
On Monday, Pompeo tweeted: “We aren’t afraid of [Zarif] coming to America where he enjoys the right to speak freely. Are the facts of the [Khamenei] regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran?” he said, referring to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei.
“What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a US think-tank, said the decision to sanction Zarif made it “much, much more difficult” for the Trump administration to talk to Iran.
“I think it is quite erroneous to still discuss the intentions of the Trump administration as aimed at securing diplomacy. If you sanction the top diplomat of the other side, you are signalling that you are not looking for diplomacy.”
“If the US and Iran cannot talk, that increases the likelihood of military confrontation,” Parsi added.
He said the US notion that “maximum pressure” would force Iran to cave in “has been disproven over and over again.”
“If there is anything that would get the Iranians to elicit flexibility, it would be flexibility shown by the American side. That’s what got the Iran nuclear deal in the first time.”