Busting the myth of sanctions

This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

The Iranian government has rejected, at least for the moment, a proposal from the P-5+1 to ship the majority of its low-enriched uranium abroad for further
enrichment. The group is now considering the next step in the roadmap
that it laid out last April. The next step was a new round of
sanctions, this time meant to be crippling. The only crippling sanction
available is to cut off the supply of gasoline, since Iran imports 35
percent of its refined gasoline products. That would theoretically
cripple the Iranian economy and compel the Iranians to comply with U.S.
demands over the nuclear issue.

We have written extensively on the ability of sanctions to work in Iran. There is, however, a broader question, which is the
general utility of sanctions in international affairs. The Iranian
government said last week that sanctions don’t concern it because,
historically, sanctions have not succeeded. This partly explains
Iranian intransigence: The Iranians don’t feel they have anything to
fear from sanctions. The question is whether the Iranian view is
correct and why they would believe it — and if they are correct, why
the P-5+1 would even consider imposing sanctions.

The Assumptions of Sanctions

We need to begin with a definition of sanctions.
In general, sanctions are some sort of penalty imposed on a country
designed to cause it sufficient pain to elicit a change in its
behavior. Sanctions are intended as an alternative to war and therefore
exclude violence. Thus, the entire point of sanctions, as opposed to
war, is to compel changes of behavior in countries without resorting to

Normal sanctions are economic and come in three basic forms. First,
there is seizing or freezing the assets of a country or its citizens
located in another country. Second, sanctions can block the shipment of
goods (or movement of people) out of the target country. Third,
sanctions can block the movement of goods into a country. Minor
sanctions are possible, such as placing tariffs on products imported
from the target country, but those sorts of acts are focused primarily
on rectifying economic imbalances and are not always driven by
political interests. Thus, the United States placed tariffs on Chinese
tires coming into the United States. The purpose was to get China to
change its economic policies. On the other hand, placing sanctions on
Iraq in the 1990s or on Sudan today are designed to achieve political
and military outcomes.

It is important to consider the underlying assumptions of the
decision to impose sanctions. First, there is the assumption that the
target country is economically dependent in some way on the country or
countries issuing the sanctions. Second, it assumes that the target
country has no alternative sources for the economic activity while
under sanctions. Third, it assumes that the pain caused will be
sufficient to compel change. The first is relatively easy to determine
and act on. The next two are far more complex.

Obviously, sanctions are an option of stronger powers toward weaker ones.
It assumes that the imposition of sanctions will cause more pain to the
target country than it will to the country or countries issuing
sanctions, and that the target country cannot or will not use military
action to counter economic sanctions. For example, the United States
placed sanctions on the sale of grain to the Soviet Union during the
Cold War. It discovered that while the sanctions were hurting the
Soviets, they were hurting American farmers as well. The pain was
reciprocal and there was an undertone of danger if the Soviets had
chosen to counter the sanctions with military force. An example of that
concerned Japan in 1941. The United States halted the shipment of oil
and scrap metal to Japan in an attempt to force it to reshape its
policies in China and Indochina. The sanctions were crippling, as the
Americans expected. However, the Japanese response was not
capitulation, but Pearl Harbor.

To understand the difficulties of determining and acting on the assumptions of imposing sanctions, consider Cuba.
The United States has imposed extensive economic sanctions on Cuba for
years. During the first decades of the sanctions, they were relatively
effective, in the sense that third countries tended to comply rather
than face possible sanctions themselves from the United States. As time
went on, the fear of sanctions declined. A European country might have
been inclined to comply with U.S. sanctions in the 1960s or 1970s, for
both political reasons and for concern over potential retaliatory
sanctions from the United States. However, as the pattern of
international economic activity shifted, and the perception of both
Cuba and the United States changed within these countries, the
political implication to comply with U.S. wishes declined, while the
danger of U.S. sanctions diminished. Placing sanctions on the European
Union would be mutually disastrous and the United States would not do
it over Cuba, or virtually any other issue.

As a result, the sanctions the United States placed on Cuba have dramatically diminished in importance. Cuba can trade with most of
the world, and other countries can invest in Cuba if they wish. The
flow of American tourists is blocked, but European, Canadian and Latin
American tourists who wish to go to Cuba can go. Cuba has profound
economic problems, but those problems are only marginally traceable to
sanctions. Indeed, the U.S. embargo has provided the Castro regime with
a useful domestic explanation for its economic failures.


This points to an interesting characteristic of sanctions. One of
the potential goals of placing sanctions on a country is to generate
unrest and internal opposition , forcing regime change or at least
policy change. This rarely happens. Instead, the imposition of
sanctions creates a sense of embattlement within the country. Two
things follow from this. First, there is frequently a boost in support
for the regime that might otherwise not be there. The idea that
economic pain takes precedence over patriotism or concern for
maintaining national sovereignty is not a theory with a great deal of
empirical support. Second, the sanctions allow a regime to legitimize
declaring a state of emergency — which is what sanctions intend to
create — and then use that state of emergency to increase repression
and decrease the opportunity for an opposition to emerge.

Consider an extreme example of sanctions during World War II, when
both the Axis and Allies tried to use airpower as a means of imposing
massive economic hardship on the population, thereby attempting to
generate unrest and opposition to the regime. Obviously, strategic
bombing is not sanctions, but it is instructive to consider them in
this sense. When we look at the Battle of Britain and the strategic
bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan, we find that
countereconomic warfare did not produce internal opposition that the
regime could not handle. Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that it
increased support for the regime. It is assumed that economic hardship
can generate regime change, yet even in some of the most extreme cases
of economic hardship, that didn’t happen.

Imposing an effective sanctions regime on a country is difficult for
two reasons. First, economic pain does not translate into political
pressure. Second, creating effective economic pain normally requires a
coalition. The United States is not in a position to unilaterally
impose effective sanctions. In order to do that, it must act in concert
with other countries that are prepared not only to announce sanctions
but — and this is far more important and difficult — also to enforce
them. This means that it must be in the political interest of all
countries that deal with the target to impose the sanctions.

It is rarely possible to create such a coalition. Nations’ interests
diverge too much. Sometimes they converge, as in South Africa prior to
the end of apartheid. South Africa proved that sanctions can work if
there is a coalition that does not benefit extensively from economic
and political ties with the target country, and where the regime is
composed of a minority within a very large sea of hostility. South
Africa was a special case. The same attempt at a sanctions regime in
Sudan over Darfur has failed because many countries have political or
economic interests there.

It is also difficult to police the sanctions. By definition, as the
sanctions are imposed, the financial returns for violating them
increase. Think of U.S. drug laws as a form of sanctions. They raise
the price of drugs in the United States and increase the incentives for
smugglers. When a broad sanctions regime was placed on Iraq, vast
amounts of money were made from legitimate and illegitimate trading
with Iraq. Regardless of what a national government might say (and it
may well say one thing and do another) individuals and corporations
will find ways around the sanctions. Indeed, Obama’s proposed sanctions
on corporations are intended precisely for this reason. As always, the
issue is one of intelligence and enforcement. People can be very good
at deception for large amounts of money.

The difficulty of creating effective sanctions raises the question
of why they are used. The primary answer is that they allow a nation to
appear to be acting effectively without enduring significant risks.
Invading a country, as the United States found in Iraq, poses
substantial risks. The imposition of sanctions on relatively weaker
countries without the ability to counter the sanctions is much less
risky. The fact that it is also far less effective is compensated for
by the lowered risk.

In truth, many sanction regimes are enforced as political gestures,
either for domestic political reasons, or to demonstrate serious intent
on the international scene. In some cases, sanctions are a way of
appearing to act so that military action can be deferred. No one
expects the sanctions to change the regime or its policies, but the
fact that sanctions are in place can be used as an argument against
actions by other nations.

This is very much the case with Iran. No one expects Russia or China (or even many of the European states) to fully comply with a sanctions
regime on gasoline. Even if they did, no one expects the flow of
gasoline to be decisively cut off. There will be too many people
prepared to take the risk of smuggling gasoline to Iran for that to
happen. Even if the U.S. blockaded Iranian ports, the Caucasus and
Central Asia are far too disorderly and the monetary rewards of
smuggling are too great of an incentive to make the gasoline sanctions
effective. Additionally, the imposition of sanctions will both rally
the population to the regime as well as provide justification for an
intense crackdown. The probability of sanctions forcing policy changes
or regime change in Iran is slim.

Balancing Acquiescence and War

But sanctions have one virtue: They delay or block military action.
So long as sanctions are being considered or being imposed, the
argument can be made to those who want military action that it is
necessary to give the sanctions time to work. Therefore, in this case,
sanctions allow the United States to block any potential military actions by Israel against Iran while appearing domestically to be taking action. Should
the United States wish to act, the sanctions route gives the Europeans
the option of arguing that military action is premature. Furthermore,
if military action took place without Russian approval while Russia was
cooperating in a sanctions regime, it would have increased room to
maneuver against U.S. interests in the Middle East, portraying the
United States as trigger-happy.

The ultimate virtue of sanctions is that they provide a platform
between acquiescence and war. The effectiveness of that platform is not
nearly as important as the fact that it provides a buffer against
charges of inaction and demands for further action. In Sudan, for
example, no one expects sanctions to work, but their presence allows
business to go on as usual while deflecting demands for more
significant action.

The P-5+1 is now shaping its response to Iran. They are not even committed to the
idea of sanctions. But they will move to sanctions if it appears that
Israel or the United States is prepared to move aggressively. Sanctions
satisfy the need to appear to be acting while avoiding the risks of


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