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Pompeo grants visa to Iran’s top diplomat to visit New York but limits his movements

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in New York on Sunday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday night that he granted a visa to Iran's foreign minister to visit New York primarily to meet U.S. obligations to the United Nations but that his movements will be sharply curtailed.

Pompeo said in a telephone interview that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his delegation will be permitted to travel between U.N. headquarters and the Iranian mission six blocks away, and to the residence of Iran’s U.N. ambassador nearby. The group arrived in New York on Sunday morning.

“U.S. diplomats don’t roam around Tehran, so we don’t see any reason for Iranian diplomats to roam freely around New York City, either,” Pompeo said.

“It’s absolutely appropriate that we provide Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation with all the rights that they are due under the U.N. headquarters agreement, and nothing more than that,” he added.

Amidst high tensions with the U.S., Iran said July 8 it had surpassed the limits on its enriched uranium stockpile. What does that mean for the nuclear deal? (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Zarif is in New York to attend a meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, a high-level ministerial meeting on sustainable development goals for issues that include conflict, hunger, gender equality and climate change. His visa was issued at the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, a day before he arrived in the United States.

The Trump administration has considered blacklisting Zarif by sanctioning him, even though Zarif says he has no assets outside of Iran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on June 24 that he expected to sanction Zarif within the week.

The United States has an agreement that requires it to issue visas expeditiously to all foreign diplomats traveling to New York for U.N. events.

Sanctioning Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, would further complicate any attempts to restart negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal that President Trump abandoned a year ago and then started a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions that have brought Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse.

Zarif is expected to meet with think tanks and journalists while he is in New York, and the six-block restriction means they will have to come to him at the Iran’s U.N. mission.

Pompeo said Zarif will use the opportunity to spread falsehoods. And then Pompeo made a pitch to appear on Iranian state television.

“Foreign Minister Zarif, he uses the freedoms of the United States to come here and spread malign propaganda,” he said. “This is a leader who has supported a regime that jails political dissidents, treats women horribly. They go after peaceful worshipers. He’s the mouthpiece of that autocracy. And they suppress free speech.”

Pompeo said he would accept any offer to go on Iranian television, as Zarif has appeared on U.S. television. He said he would tell Iranians that “we care deeply about them, that we’re supportive of the Iranian people, that we understand that the revolutionary theocracy is not acting in a way that is in their best interest.”

Pompeo declined to comment when asked whether he or anyone else in the U.S. government would try to speak with Zarif at the United Nations this week or at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen sharply in the past two months since the United States began ramping up sanctions on Iran’s oil industry. In calibrated steps of response, Iran has surpassed limits of uranium stockpiles and enrichment agreed to in the nuclear deal for the first time since it took effect in 2016.

Trump and Pompeo have both said they would be willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday he would enter negotiations if the United States lifted sanctions.

Pompeo dismissed Rouhani’s offer as “the same offer that he offered to John F. Kerry and Barack Obama.”

“President Trump will obviously make the final decision. But this is a path that the previous administration had gone down and it led to the JCPOA, which this administration, President Trump and I both believe was a disaster,” Pompeo said referring to the nuclear agreement, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Pompeo also said the United States is examining the delivery of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system to Turkey, a NATO ally, which he has said may trigger sanctions.

The first components for the system arrived Friday in Ankara, the capital, Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement. U.S. law mandates sanctions against countries that make “significant” deals with the Russian defense industry, but the Trump administration has sent mixed signals about how it might respond to Turkey.

Pompeo suggested Sunday that the punishments might be imminent.

“The law requires that there be sanctions and I’m confident that we will comply with the law and President Trump will comply with the law,” he said.