The theater of economic sanctions

By Jack Shafer
February 8, 2013

Today’s edition of the New York Times visits Tehran and reports on page one that the economic sanctions leveled against Iran by the United States are not working — if by working one means that the country shows any signs of ditching its nuclear program.

Oh, it’s not like the sanctions have completely flopped: Inflation is gargantuan, and the currency has melted. But the Times reporters find that Iran’s citizens have yet to riot over prices. New high-rises are rising high over Tehran and a Chinese-built highway interchange  is similarly soaring. Shops are filled with goods, and new eateries seem to be opening daily. In response, the Obama administration has decided to do the thing it does when sanctions don’t work (and not working is something sanctions frequently do): It’s adding more sanctions. (Print headline: “U.S. Ratchets Up an Economic War Against Tehran; Web headline: “U.S. Increases Pressure of Economic War on Tehran.”)

For all the clarity the Times brings to the subject, the piece could have been headlined “U.S. Doubles Down on Hopeless Initiative Against Iran.” Not only are the existing sanctions not working, the Times reports, but unnamed senior Obama administration officials doubt that the new sanctions will work. In detailing the mechanics of the sanctions, the piece leaves the reader to understand that just about the only positive thing about sanctions is that they’re not as nasty as war. But that might change, too. The Times‘ kicker reports an upcoming military exercise in the Persian Gulf in which the U.S. and its allies will practice intercepting banned weapons and technology bound for Iranian ports, which may result in the worst of both worlds — sanctions and war.

The United States has levied sanctions on so many countries over the years, with so little success, that a template must exist over at the Times for stories such as today’s. Time and again we’ve been told by the government and news reports that the sanctions had shattered the Iranian economy and that the country really couldn’t take much more. (Last month the Wall Street Journal published such an account.) Yet Iran stands, and the Obama administration proposes yet another wave of sanctions. The United States made economic sanctions its foreign policy tool of choice in the post-cold-war era, as Richard N. Haass explained in Foreign Affairs 15 years ago, because they’re a politically painless way for presidents to look as though they’re doing something as they seek to arrest weapons proliferation, stop wars and topple foreign governments.

The president’s sanctions golf bag contains a dozen or more clubs. According to Haass, these include “arms embargoes, foreign assistance reductions and cutoffs, export and import limitations, asset freezes, tariff increases, import quota decreases, revocation of most favored nation (MFN) trade status, votes in international organizations, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, visa denials, cancellation of air links, and credit, financing, and investment prohibitions.” Haass called sanctions “a form of expression, a way to signal displeasure with a behavior or an action.”

“Sanctions alone are unlikely to achieve results if the aims are large or time is short,” he wrote, calling to mind the limited success of the measures against Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and other nations. He continued: “Sanctions can weaken a country, but it usually takes civil disturbances, civil war, invasion or the threat of invasion to change a regime or its direction.” For U.S. sanctions to have real bite, they must prohibit or limit trade by nations in addition to the directly sanctioned nation, which in practice means that imposing sanctions on countries like Iran ends up causing geopolitical problems for the U.S. with its big trade partners, like China, France or Russia. And the more materially onerous the sanctions, the greater the tendency for the sanctioned nation’s people to unite in resistance against the sanctions issuer, which is what the Times appears to be observing in Iran.

This isn’t to suggest that economic sanctions never work. In the case of Iran, we know that oil sanctions by the United States and the European Union have cut exports by as much as 70 percent. But there’s not much evidence that all this hurt will cause Iran to change its policies or instigate a revolution[r8] . One comprehensive study found that the smaller a targeted nation’s GDP and the larger the targeting nation’s GDP (or group of nations’ GDP), the greater likelihood that sanctions will cause the targeted nation to bend (as, for instance, happened with the sanctions against pre-Zimbabwe Rhodesia). If sanctions are piled on slowly, they’re less likely to work than if they all dumped on a targeted nation at once. But if the target has a supportive patron, as Cuba once did in the Soviet Union and now has in Venezuela, or if the target finds a way to market its goods and resources around the sanctions, as Iran has, this likelihood can vanish. (See also North Korea’s protective cousin, China.)

Media coverage of sanctions could be easily improved if the press dispensed with treating them as grand foreign policy moments and started treating them more like foreign policy theater. Just as a playwright, a director and his cast seek to move an audience to tears, laughter or fury with their production, a sanctions-issuing country hopes to move a foreign nation’s ruling elite by a dramatic demonstration. In the case of Iran, the United States intends to show that its latest performance means that it really, really means business. Iran, meanwhile, has every right to think, Yeah, yeah, we’ve seen this chin-wagging act a million times, and we can take any sanction you throw at us. Iran is right, of course, hence the Obama administration’s doubts that the new sanctions will work any better than the old ones. But Iran isn’t the only audience for America’s show. Perhaps the sanctions are for the entertainment of Israel, which in order to keep the show from bombing (sorry!), must find the United States’s performance meaningful. What we really need is an honest Iranian theater critic who can tell us if the show is bombing in Tehran.

******

All the world’s a stage, except this column. Send dramatic advice to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed should be optioned by Hollywood. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A man counts stacks of Iranian rials at a currency exchange shop in Kerbala , 110 km (70 miles) south of Baghdad January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

8 comments

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Sanctions don’t work when an adversary believes he is correct and stubborn. Especially when the damage is done against its citizens rather than on the Power Grip.
Further sanctions have a side affect, as small as it may be, it also hurts the World economy. And we are part of that economy.

If the US government thinks Iranians will rise up, then our government needs their head examined. Iran isn’t France or the UK, Iran is more like the USA, when citizens don’t like something they wine&bitch but won’t or can’t do anything to change the situation. They are no different than us, constraint by a police force.

If sanction are to work they need to hit the power seat, and further by hitting the citizens rather than the power base, the greatest majority will hate the USA rather than their own government. They are not dumb and know exactly who’s causing the pain.

If the US wants a bargaining chip, it needs to be fair, and consider the whole middle east nuclear free, which includes the Jewish state, of course that won’t happen, so it’s David vs, Goliath rather than two cool collective heads working out a reasonable solution.
And more importantly in order to bring the Middle East into our way of thinking the Palestinian issue needs to be resolved, no one nation has been against that, including Europe, except for the United States, and therefore the underlying cause of many of our problems, including terrorism for which the US citizens is still paying today in their freedom and in taxes.

Posted by DDavid | Report as abusive

Iranians are far less evil than America or Israel.

For many years the US lived with the Soviet Union in possession of thousands of nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missles, aimed right at American cities.

The Soviet press, for example the official newspaper Pravda, routinely published major editorials calling for the destruction of imperialist America, the capitalist exploiter of mankind.

Yet Russia for all its rhetoric, was run by human beings, and as human beings do, even fanatical communists, they considered their own interests, and their families. They never used any of their thousands of nuclear weapons on anybody.

The same with Chinese communists. They have nuclear missles. They, too, have families and children they love. And so too with Iranians Moslems. They too have families and children they love.

But the cleverest Hollywood script writers and propagandists on Earth reside in Israel, and they have the world believing that Iran, who has invaded nobody, would immediately use a nuclear weapon if it had one.

Israel itself, constantly threatening to strike Iran, is driving the world toward war. Israel, the great criminal nation, steals more land from defenseless Palestinians every day, while cleverly diverting our attention by pointing their finger at Iran.

Israel, who every day steals land, who bulldozes homes, cuts down olive tree groves, who kills Palestinian children with tanks and helicopter. This same Israel cleverly points their finger at Iran, who steals nobody’s land, and invades nobody.

Of all the nations that possess nuclear arms (Israel, America, France, England, India, Pakistan, Russia, China) Iran would be a safer bet to be responsible and rational.

It was only America who has used its nuclear weapons on fellow humans, when we dropped two of them on Japan after she was already defeated, at the end of WWII. General Eisenhower was very much against it.

The world will be better off if Iran DOES have a nuclear deterrent.

Iran is a huge country with 73 million people. The sooner Iran has nuclear missles to defend itself, the sooner the threat of war will recede.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Economic sanctions are as gross a use of naked force as unprovoked military aggression – and Washington seems to use both with almost equal abandon.

Just as we preach tolerance toward political and religious diversity within countries, we should practice tolerance toward those with whom we disagree politically abroad.

In any case, we tend to do so if the country in question is big and powerful (e.g. China, Russia) but revert to economic and military violence if the country is relatively weak (Cuba, Iran, etc.)

Personally, I hope Iran endures the current onslaught and either comes to an mutually satisfactory resolution of its conflict with the USA or procures its badly-needed nuclear deterrent.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Siege has not worked against popular governments unless the people were starving or the government itself did not want to suppress the opposition. Lenin=grad held out for years amid starvation.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

At least in this case, sanctions are not the alternative to war. When they have been applied as brutally as possible and yet still fail the cry from “humanitarian” interventionists will go out that we must invade Iran and overthrow its government in order to rescue the suffering population from the sanctions regime. Iranians, even those opposed to their current government, will not be fooled. They will resist the Western invasion much as the Afghans and Iraqis have. Many ordinary, previously peaceful, Iranians will be recruited by anti-Western terrorist organizations. There are many well educated and highly skilled Iranians. They will make for very formidable terrorist enemies.

Posted by Adam_Smith | Report as abusive

this add gives the opportunity to think over once more to the punition infliged to Julian Assange and questionning wether wikileaks wouldn’t be the tool that laks in this arm-wresting between USA and Iran. A wiki is a place for people of Iran that want to be free to express themselves. The wiki unfortunatly worked against USA in the case of Iraqi war tough it has been very well opérating in Syria in Egypt in Lybia and in Tunisia. The future of the Arabian spring is very uncertain. And may be is the wiki playing the role that the voice of America were used to get in the past.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

The one thing that the US government cannot seem to get into its thick skull is that the Iranian nation is old..it has existed in one guise or another for thousands of years – its peoples have survived invasion, deprivation, famine, religious stupidity…and still they keep going. The US has been around for how long…? 250 years? That counts as nothing to the peoples of Darius….the US will come and go…as it will…but the they will remain.

So, Obama – stop acting like the street corner thug, wake up…because sure as eggs is eggs, the epitaph of the US will be written in the script of a nation that was ancient before the America was discovered by the Vikings…..they can teach you a lot -if only the US wasn’t so arrogant!

Posted by randburg100 | Report as abusive

I am just not sure what the big deal is about Iran having an A-bomb. Everyone else has one, why cant they?

The only nation that has anything to fear is Israel, and Iran knows that they would be bombed back to the stone age if they attack them. Sounds sort of like the U.S. and Russia for most of the previous sixty years. And we are both still here, pointing missiles at each other, knowing we will never use them.

Get over Iran. And for God’s (Allah’s) sake dont even think about regime change.

Posted by unobtr | Report as abusive