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When will the US learn that sanctions don't solve its problems?

Harsh economic penalties rarely, if ever, work to change a targeted regime's behavior; so why do we still use them?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The definition of insanity, it is often said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Yet that is exactly what U.S. and other Western policymakers have done in imposing broad economic sanctions against adversarial and otherwise problematic regimes.

The results have generally not been positive. Instead of persuading authoritarian and aggressive leaders to change their ways, broad sanctions have reinforced anti-democratic tendencies and incentivized nuclear and other proliferation. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens of these countries suffer in terms of declining standards of living and increased government repression, while a shrinking elite prospers from control over limited resources.  

We have seen this movie over and over in places as distant and distinct as Venezuela and Iran, Cuba, Syria, and North Korea.

The latter country is a particularly depressing poster child for sanctions. Since it began developing and testing nuclear weapons — after the George W. Bush administration withdrew from a non-proliferation deal known as the Agreed Framework in 2002 — North Korea has been hit with wave after wave of sanctions and has become increasingly isolated. While there is no mass starvation of the sort that killed as many as two million people in the 1990s, there is serious food insecurity with many North Koreans eating only one meal a day, according to well-informed sources.

Using COVID-19 as an excuse, the government of Kim Jong-un has refused access to international aid agencies such as the World Food Program and made it more difficult for North Koreans to learn about the outside world or to escape as refugees. The China-North Korea border, which was once relatively porous, is now hermetically sealed, with, informed sources say, 169 watchtowers and two barbed-wire perimeters preventing North Koreans from reaching and crossing the Yalu River and eventually making their way to South Korea via third countries.

Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted multiple missile launches this year and restarted a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon that is a likely radiation catastrophe in the making. Funds for these endeavors come from stealing crypto currency and other crimes that sanctions incentivize. Kim, the grandson of North Korea’s founder, appears to be grooming a fourth generation to maintain control over this small nation of 25 million people, with the support of China which would rather have a nuclear pariah as its neighbor than a unified, prosperous and democratic Korean peninsula.

Iran is another example of sanctions run amok. Multilateral sanctions preceding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action may have played a role in encouraging successful nuclear negotiations, but they lost their purpose when the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 while Iran was in full compliance. Rather than negotiate a better deal, the Iranian regime has advanced its nuclear program to the point where Iran could produce sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Iran continues to support militias in Iraq and Yemen, props up the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and maintains close ties with Lebanon’s powerful anti-Western, anti-Israel Hezbollah. Iran has also developed increasingly sophisticated missiles and drones, despite long-time U.S. and multilateral trade restrictions on weapons and dual use trade. Iran has supplied drones and rockets to the Houthis in Yemen and is now providing drones to Russia to use in its aggression against Ukraine.

The domestic political situation in Iran has also deteriorated under sanctions. Trump’s trashing of the JCPOA destroyed the political fortunes of those within the Iranian regime who supported the deal and ushered in a unitary hard-right administration whose efforts to reinforce laws requiring women to wear headscarves and modest clothing have now boomeranged spectacularly. The widespread protests that broke out in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16, 2022, in the custody of the so-called “morality police,” have led to new sanctions on Iran linked to human rights violations which are sensibly targeted. However, negotiations over reviving the JCPOA, which would bring relief of broader sanctions on Iran’s banks, oil exports and manufacturing, are moribund.

While corruption and mismanagement are also at fault, sanctions have had a major role in Iran’s economic decline. The Iranian people have grown increasingly impoverished as their currency’s value has tanked, inflation has soared, and trade and investment have dwindled. More than a third of the nation of more than 80 million people is now classified as poor, by the government’s own standards, with the decline occurring since the introduction of broad sanctions about a decade ago.

Iran trade expert Bijan Khajehpour wrote recently that, “the continued disempowerment of the middle class will add to the economic erosion that the country is set to experience due to a lack of infrastructure investments.” Yet to lift sanctions now would cause an uproar because it would also put more resources into the hands of a hated regime. Unfortunately, that regime has a monopoly over what little resources Iran earns.

Other countries that have faced such broad embargos, such as Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela, have also not changed for the better. Recently the Biden administration has relaxed restrictions on U.S. investment in Venezuelan oil production, to compensate for efforts to choke off oil exports by another sanctioned pariah, Russia, which continues its aggression in Ukraine.

Sanctions proponents suggest that these penalties will encourage a change in regime policies if not a change in regimes themselves. But the link between sanctions and regime change is tenuous and sanctions often seem to prolong the worst dictatorships, not overturn them.

So why do sanctions keep being imposed? As virtue signaling? As a substitute for war? To placate domestic political constituencies? All of the above?

There are many reasons, but the results do not seem to justify the means. Will politicians ever acknowledge the facts and change course?

Image: Zwiebackesser via
Analysis | Asia-Pacific
A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)
A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)

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