Why Sanctions Don’t Work


In 1919, after allied sanctions on food shipments had starved the Kaiser’s Germany into submission, President Wilson endorsed the continued use of sanctions to settle international disputes as an “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy.” Almost a century later, the weapon is more popular than ever, mostly because of a wholly mistaken belief that it makes the targets do what we want. Currently, the United States is enforcing no fewer than 24 separate sanctions regimes directed at targets ranging from the Balkans to Zimbabwe. Now, of course, with Vladimir Putin proving fractious, Washington has opened another financial offensive, this time against Russia.

Whereas once the U.S. embargoed entire countries, such as Cuba, it now has techniques for targeting individuals — economic Hellfire missiles. The initial salvo in the Ukraine situation — visa bans and asset freezes on some individuals deemed “cronies” of the Russian leader — appear modest in their effect. There is heavier armament, developed in recent years in the Treasury’s R&D shops, waiting in reserve. There are already threats to deploy the deadly “secondary sanctions” targeted at any individual or company providing financial aid to the Russian government. This was the approach that jailed people for sending aid to their families in Iraq when the U.S. was sanctioning Saddam Hussein.

For years after all those Germans starved, sanctions lacked a major victory. Fidel Castro‘s Cuba has remained afloat despite decades of embargo, as did Hussein’s Iraq until we attacked with bombs and tanks. South Africa’s apartheid economy was already in deep trouble before the West reluctantly imposed sanctions, which were reinforced by international outrage and revulsion — a moral blockade as it were.

These days, however, sanctioneers brandish what they consider a clear, unalloyed victory: the negotiations with Iran on that country’s nuclear program. It is now taken as a matter of course in Washington, as New York Times correspondent David Sanger noted recently, that the U.S. Treasury, “Obama’s favorite noncombatant command,” had “refined the art of the economic squeeze on Iran, eventually forcing the mullahs to the negotiating table.” Variations on this theme are repeated ad nauseam: Sanctions brought the Tehran regime to its knees, causing such pain that it eventually cried “uncle” and crawled to the table.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Sanctions did not bring Iran to the table. Not only Iranian officials but other undeniably objective observers concur that the reason negotiations have commenced is emphatically not because Iran could endure the pain no longer.

“Total nonsense,” scoffed former U.S. Ambassador William Miller when I put the question to him. Miller has closely monitored Iranian affairs since he was stationed in that country in the 1960s, and has close contacts with the current leadership. “Sanctions only made them more defiant,” and they always had ways of getting around them. The deal that’s being discussed now is almost exactly the same one the Iranians offered back in 2003 — full transparency on their nuclear program, but recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, whose family suffered repression under the shah and ayatollahs and later fled Iran, was equally derisive when I called. “What no one seems to notice is that it was the U.S. that made the key concession that led to these talks. The Iranians have been demanding all along that their right to enrich be recognized. Bush refused that point-blank for eight years. Obama refused for four years, all the way through the first term. Now the U.S. has accepted it.”

Indeed. The Joint Plan of Action agreed to last fall between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 negotiating team — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — stipulated that Iran would not continue to enrich uranium to levels above 5%, implicitly recognizing that Tehran can enrich uranium. All those years of throttling the Iranian economy, impeding even shipments of food and medicine, for this?

The problem with relying on false history is that it leads to bad decisions. Shooting wars end when there is a cease-fire and the guns stop. Sanctions have a way of enduring, especially now that there is an entrenched enforcement bureaucracy at the Treasury Department with independent support on Capitol Hill. They also tend to become an end in themselves: Much of Obama’s first-term diplomacy was focused on drumming up international support for the Iranian sanctions. Finally, they make us unpopular. The outside world has long considered the Cuba embargo silly, and European courts are increasingly ruling against sanctions targeting Iranian banks.

Let’s not end up sanctioning ourselves.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s magazine. Twitter: @andrewmcockburn

This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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