Smart versus Dumb Sanctions

By David Cortright | 2013-01-01 11:00:00

In the 1990s, because of the horrific humanitarian costs of the draconian embargo against Iraq, the United States and other countries adopted a policy of targeted sanctions. No longer would nations impose general sanctions that harm innocent populations. The focus instead would be on pressuring specific individuals and entities responsible for wrongdoing through arms embargoes and selective measures such as travel bans and asset freezes.

Today in Iran the United States and the European Union have abandoned the idea of smart sanctions. US and EU sanctions have hammered Iran’s banking industry and oil trading sector and are starting to devastate the economy. The goal is to make sanctions “bite” so that the Tehran government will yield to Western demands, but so far Iranian officials remain defiant.

Meanwhile the costs for the people of Iran are mounting. Oil exports have dropped in half, national income is plummeting, inflation has gone through the roof, and economic hardships are mounting. Vulnerable medical patients cannot get the medicines they need. Recent reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times indicate that chemotherapy drugs are hard to obtain and in short supply. Food and medicines are exempt from sanctions, but if they cannot be financed, the exemption is meaningless. In response to the troubling news stories the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently loosened regulations for exporting medicines to Iran, but the larger problem of how to finance such purchases remains.

Policy makers seem to have forgotten the reasons for shifting to targeted sanctions. The purpose is not only to avoid unintended humanitarian consequences but to minimize the risk of a rally-round-the-flag effect. When sanctions harm the innocent they lose legitimacy and political support. Governments under blanket sanctions can blame their country’s economic and social miseries on external enemies, diverting attention from their own mismanagement. They can isolate domestic opponents by accusing them of helping foreign enemies. All of these trends are evident now in Iran. Sanctions have made life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates—which is why many opponents of the regime, including Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, are critical of them.

It is important to distinguish between UN sanctions and the broader measures imposed by the United States and the European Union. The sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council are more selective and targeted. They freeze the assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They do not hurt ordinary people. These sanctions have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. They signal strong international opposition to an Iranian bomb program. They provide bargaining leverage that can be used to reach a negotiated agreement to end the nuclear standoff.

Sanctions that target potential bomb makers are smart. Those that harm innocent civilians are counterproductive and should be abandoned.

David Cortright is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute. This article first appeared in his blog,

Peace Magazine January-March 2013

Peace Magazine January-March 2013, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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