Failed Sanctions On Iran – Analysis


During his State of the Union address President Obama trumpeted the supposed success of tougher sanctions on Iran. U.S. policymakers seem to believe that stronger measures will deny the regime’s nuclear capability and force it to cry uncle. Although sanctions are indeed causing serious harm to the Iranian economy, they have not forced the government to comply with U.S. demands.

Greater pressure seems only to have hardened the regime’s determination to press ahead with the nuclear program, while weakening the position of the country’s beleaguered civil society opposition.

Research in other cases has shown that the success of sanctions depends not on their severity but on how skillfully they are mixed with incentives as part of a diplomatic strategy. This was the case with Libya in 2003 when Gaddafi gave up weapons of mass destruction. The success of sanctions also depends on whether significant political factions within the target country support external sanctions, as was the case during the international campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Neither of these conditions exists in Iran.

Punishment, Not Diplomacy

Sanctions against Iran have been used primarily to punish not to provide bargaining leverage. This method of sanctions policy has proven ineffective in numerous cases. U.S. sanctions were imposed more than 30 years ago in response to the Islamic revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. They have remained in place ever since. In the 1990s they were reinforced by President Clinton and the U.S. Congress via the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. The declared purposes of U.S. sanctions include ending Iran’s support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and preventing the development of nuclear weapons production capacity. The Iranian leadership has refused to discuss these topics until sanctions are lifted and the United States returns billions of dollars of financial assets frozen in 1979. Since 2006, the United States and its allies, along with the United Nations, have imposed additional multilateral sanctions focused on ending Iran’s nuclear program and halting uranium enrichment. These measures have imposed costs on Iran’s nuclear program and may have slowed its development, but they have not stopped Tehran from steadily enhancing its nuclear capability and developing the technologies and materials that could be used to build a bomb.

Nearly every objective analysis of U.S. sanctions against Iran has judged them a failure. In 2001 the Atlantic Council issued a report concluding that the sanctions were not achieving the desired policy results and were an obstacle to the realization of U.S. interests. The Council strongly recommended lifting sanctions on Iran and pursuing normalized diplomatic relations.  Any hopes for such a change in policy were dashed when President Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil.” The Obama administration has further intensified pressure against Iran as part of its attempt to curry favor with pro-Israeli interests in the United States.

Sanctions are hurting not helping our potential allies within Iran. Democratic opposition leaders and supporters of the Green Movement do not favor international sanctions on their country.  Former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has labeled President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policies “wrong and adventurist,” but he has consistently opposed sanctions. “Sanctions would not affect the government,” he said in 2009, “but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers.” The regime is able to use its defiance of Western demands to rally domestic political support. Iranian human rights advocates warn that increased external pressure often means greater repression against domestic opponents. “The government will say that critics of their policies are doing the foreigners’ bidding and will use sanctions as a pretext” to silence them, said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a leading opposition voice. Restrictions on public assembly and internet access have tightened in recent years as external pressure has intensified.

Persuasion, Not Force

The history of nonproliferation teaches that nations must be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons capability. They cannot be forced. Over the decades more than two dozen countries have decided not to acquire or maintain nuclear weapons capability. Security assurances and positive inducements played an important role in many of these nonproliferation decisions. Coercive disarmament worked only once, in the exceptional case of Iraq, which was subjected to draconian multilateral sanctions and subsequently defeated in war. In all other cases nations decided to give up the bomb on their own. They did so for a variety of reasons–a domestic shift toward democracy, the lure of greater openness to the global economy, improved security relations with neighboring states, and security assurances from major states. In many cases economic and security inducements helped to make denuclearization the preferred option.

This does not mean that sanctions have no role to play, especially when combined with incentives. In the case of Libya lifting sanctions formed a central part of the agreement to abandon weapons of mass destruction. The offer to lift sanctions can be a potent inducement for cooperation. The art of diplomacy lies in creatively blending pressures and inducements to exert persuasive influence and reward a state for adopting a desired change in policy. As nonproliferation expert Leon Sigal observes,

Convincing countries not to build the Bomb requires cooperating with them, however unsavory that may be. Countries that seek nuclear arms are insecure. Trying to isolate them or force them to forgo nuclear arming could well backfire.

Such states need assurances to ease their insecurity. The best approach, according to Sigal, is a “strategy of diplomatic give-and-take that combines reassurance with conditional reciprocity, promising inducements on the condition that potential proliferators accept nuclear restraints.”

Peace, Not War

Diplomatic options are available for defusing tensions with Iran. A settlement of the nuclear standoff could be based on international acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment, in exchange for enhanced monitoring of its nuclear program. Iran has recently renewed its willingness to negotiate with the United States and its European allies and has indicated continued interest in arranging a fuel swap with foreign countries. Under the terms of the proposed deal, Iran would transfer some of its low-level enriched uranium to another country (France or Russia have been mentioned), where the fuel would be enriched to higher levels and returned to Iran for medical uses. The removal of a portion of Iran’s nuclear fuel would lower its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

The proposed arrangement could set a precedent for greater transparency and international participation in Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. and European officials complain that the proposed deal has many loopholes and would not shut down continuing enrichment. Negotiating a fuel swap is not meant as a final solution but rather as a confidence-building process to begin diplomatic dialogue. When Iran, Turkey, and Brazil formally proposed the fuel swap two years ago, they specifically referred to the proposal as a “starting point to begin cooperation and a positive constructive move forward among nations.”

The United States has shown no interest in negotiating with Iran, and that will probably not change in this political season as the Obama administration seeks to outflank the right in pressuring Iran. Some in the administration no doubt believe that tougher sanctions will stay the hand of those urging military strikes. This is a dangerous game, for it maintains and deepens the isolation of Iran and increases the risk of miscalculation. The United States needs a completely different policy, based on a willingness to talk (which Obama promised and took some heat for in his 2008 campaign). After 30 years of failed sanctions, it’s time to try a different approach, using persuasion rather than punishment. Let’s offer to begin lifting sanctions in exchange for steps toward greater transparency and assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is genuinely peaceful.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor David Cortright is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and author or editor of 17 books, including the Adelphi volume Towards Nuclear Zero (International Institute for Strategic Studies/Routledge, 2010).


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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