Iran has slammed Washington's decision to sanction Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as part of an escalating campaign of pressure against Tehran, calling the move "childish" and "unwise."
In a speech in the northwestern city of Tabriz on August 1, a day after the United States imposed financial sanctions on Zarif, President Hassan Rohani said that the United States move showed Washington is “afraid” of the Iranian top diplomat.
"They [Americans] are resorting to childish behavior.... They were claiming every day 'We want to talk, with no preconditions'...and then they sanction the foreign minister," Rohani said in remarks carried live on state television.
"Our enemies are so helpless that they have lost the ability to act and think wisely."
Tensions between the two countries have soared since the United States in May 2018 withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear deal that aimed to curb the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The United States imposed restrictive measures on Zarif, freezing any assets he might have in the United States, following President Donald Trump's June executive order placing sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Describing Zarif as the Iranian "regime's primary spokesperson around the world," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin accused the foreign minister of implementing Khamenei’s “reckless agenda.”
“The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable," Mnuchin said in a statement.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Iranian Foreign Ministry “is not merely the diplomatic arm of the Islamic republic but also a means of advancing many of [Khamenei’s] destabilizing policies.
The European Union, which has been trying to salvage the nuclear deal since the U.S. pullout, said on August 1 it regretted the U.S. decision and vowed to continue working with Zarif.
"We will continue to work with Mr Zarif as Iran's most senior diplomat and in view of the importance of maintaining diplomatic channels," said Carlos Martin Ruiz De Gordejuela, a spokesman for EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps called the U.S. move "absurd," saying in a statement that the "Americans have once again shown their anger at the Islamic Revolution's inspiring...discourse and made evident their enmity towards Iran's system and proud nation."
U.S. officials have said they were open to unconditional talks with Tehran, a proposal Khamenei has rejected.
Rohani also alleged that the Trump administration is “afraid of our foreign minister's interviews," referring to a recent round of interviews Zarif gave to foreign media.
Zarif earlier tweeted that the United States had imposed sanctions on him because it considered him a “huge threat” to its agenda.
He also said the U.S. move "has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran."
In May 2018, Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers and started reimposing economically crippling sanctions in many sectors, including the crucial oil and finance industries.
France, Germany, and Britain -- three of the five remaining signatories -- have tried to salvage the accord and proposed a complicated financial barter system designed to provide some economic relief to Tehran.
But Iran complained that the process was too slow and breached the limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium set under the nuclear pact.
On July 31, the U.S. State Department said Pompeo had extended restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, which it said will “help preserve oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program, reduce proliferation risks, constrain Iran’s ability to shorten its ‘breakout time’ to a nuclear weapon, and prevent the regime from reconstituting sites for proliferation-sensitive purposes.”
Meanwhile, the United States extended waivers allowing Russia, China, and European countries to continue civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran.
White House national-security adviser John Bolton told Fox News that it is a "90-day extension," a shorter period than earlier waivers.
"I think the idea here is we are watching those nuclear activities very, very closely," Bolton said.
Little headway was made in Vienna on July 28 to save the nuclear accord between the pact’s remaining signatories, which also include Russia and China.
Efforts to salvage the deal have been complicated in recent weeks by escalating tensions between London and Tehran, which were triggered by the capture of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar and Iran's subsequent seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on August 1 reiterated that London had rejected the idea that it could release the Iranian tanker in exchange for the British vessel.
"We are not going to barter a ship that was detained legally with a ship that was detained illegally: that's not the way that Iran will come in from the cold," Raab said during a trip to Thailand.
Amid growing concerns that recent incidents in the Persian Gulf could lead to a military conflict, the United States has been attempting to create an international naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz -- a key shipping line that connects the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
On August 1, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the U.S. efforts a crude attempt to pressure Iran.
"Events there are really moving to a dangerous point and there are risks of a large-scale military clash," Zakharova said, adding that Washington seemed to be “simply looking for a pretext to whip up the situation" and continue its "aggressive rhetoric toward Iran."