BEIRUT, Lebanon — Iranian officials reacted with unified irritation on Thursday to the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, calling the move petty and provocative, and evidence of Washington’s insincerity when it talks of peace.
The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump deplored and abandoned, is one of Iran’s best-known leaders and perhaps its most effective in making his country’s case to the West. The sanctions, imposed on Wednesday, could make it more difficult to engage in the new diplomacy that Mr. Trump says he wants.
With Iran and the United States locked for months on the brink of armed conflict, Iran’s leaders are often viewed as split between hard-liners who urge confrontation and moderates like Mr. Zarif who support diplomacy.
But Western analysts see the punishment of Mr. Zarif as the latest in a series of signs that the Trump administration is itself deeply divided over the right approach to Iran — and that, despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that he wants to negotiate, his most hawkish advisers are not interested in diplomacy.
And official Iranian reaction to the move was notably united.
“The ill-wishers of the Iranian nation and government have now resorted to childish measures,” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said Thursday during a speech in northwest Iran, according to Press TV, a state news agency.
“The enemy claims every day that it wants dialogue with Iran and has no precondition for negotiations with the Iranian government,” he added. “It, however, sanctions our foreign minister.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite military branch that the United States designated this year as a terrorist organization, is often regarded as one of the most powerful hard-line factions in Iran. Its uncompromising stance toward has often been at variance with Mr. Zarif’s.
But the semiofficial Fars news agency reported on Thursday that the Revolutionary Guards had described the sanctions against the foreign minister as “ridiculous, illegal and unwise.”
Mr. Zarif saw his position weaken inside and outside Iran after the nuclear agreement failed to deliver the economic benefits the Iranian people had been promised, though he remains among the most popular figures in the country, according to Iran’s limited polling. But the public statements of support on Thursday could be read as support for his efforts to reach out to the United States through talks on hostages and Iran’s missile program.
“I think that’s really about, in some ways, a reaffirmation of diplomacy,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the London-based founder of Bourse & Bazaar, a website that covers sanctions-era Iran.
As for the sanctions, “I think this move is perceived in Iran as sanctions against the idea of diplomacy itself,” he added.
Mr. Trump and his advisers have described Iran as a major threat to Middle East stability, a sponsor of terrorism and of insurgent groups that is developing weapons that can threaten American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In announcing the sanctions, the Trump administration called Mr. Zarif a “key enabler of Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies throughout the region and around the world.”
Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated on Wednesday that the administration’s Iran policy — squeezing the country through sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military pressure — is designed to force it to negotiate a more favorable nuclear deal, it was unclear on Thursday who might sit across from the table from American officials if not Mr. Zarif.
American officials insisted that Mr. Zarif was an ineffectual partner for talks because he had no decision-making power. But there is little chance of direct talks with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, who is also under American sanctions.
A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry argued that it was a “peak of stupidity” to say both that Mr. Zarif was powerless and that he was a malign force in need of punishment.
“They don’t recognize Dr. Zarif as being influential in Iran’s policy, but with the ultimate ignorance they sanction him!” tweeted the spokesman, Abbas Mousavi. “The Americans have a strong fear of the logic of Dr. Zarif and his negotiating skills.”
“Some seem to think that we can designate Zarif without impact on potential talks,” Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation and researcher at Columbia University, tweeted Wednesday evening. But, she said, “You simply won’t get direct talks with Khamenei. This isn’t how the regime rolls.”
Analysts in the United States also questioned the reasoning behind the move.
If it is true, as Mr. Zarif tweeted on Wednesday, that the foreign minister does not have “property or interests” outside Iran, then the sanctions are unlikely to hurt him much financially.
“The Zarif designation is one of the most ridiculous steps I’ve seen this Administration take,” tweeted Richard Nephew, a Brookings Institution fellow who helped oversee the expansion of sanctions against Iran under the Obama administration and served as sanctions adviser to the American team that negotiated the nuclear deal. “It won’t meaningfully affect Zarif’s diplomacy, it probably won’t result in much in terms of asset freeze or complications for him, and will annoy other world leaders.”
But the measures may make Mr. Zarif vulnerable to inconveniences in the course of his diplomatic duties, by forcing other countries to figure out how to work with him while not running afoul of the sanctions, or by preventing him from traveling to New York to visit the United Nations.
Some analysts suggested that Mr. Zarif’s designation may have been the result of infighting between anti-Iran hard-liners in the Trump administration and those who favor pursuing a deal. The sanctions came on the same day that the administration announced it would extend waivers on separate sanctions tied to Iran’s nuclear program, extensions that the hawks had been agitating against.
Simultaneously sanctioning Mr. Zarif, analysts said, was probably an attempt to blunt criticism from those inside and outside the administration who wanted the waivers ended.