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Will sanctions work on Iran this time around?

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Nuclear program

Will sanctions work on Iran this time around?

History provides perspective with a glimmer of hope

  • Iran's Ahmadinejad.
    Daniella Zalcman/FlickrIran's Ahmadinejad.
  • Iran's Natanz nuclear facility in 2006.
    Hamed Saber/FlickrIran's Natanz nuclear facility in 2006.

Having failed to talk Iran out of its nuclear program the Obama administration has ramped up efforts to get the Security Council to endorse a new round of sanctions.

These new sanctions would freeze the international financial lifelines of the Revolutionary Guards and other elites, expand the list of Iranian companies and individuals facing travel bans, blacklist shipping companies and curb arms, oil equipment and gasoline exports to the revolutionary regime.

How much of this menu the council will adopt and its effectiveness remains uncertain, though the wheels have been set in motion. Six world powers, including China, agreed on Wednesday to start drawing up the Security Council resolution, according to reports.

The effort comes against a backdrop of three prior sanction resolutions that sought to move the mullahs by curbing Tehran's international arms imports and the overseas assets and travel of a handful of Iranians.

The failure of U.N. penalties in the past naturally raises questions about why new sanctions will be more successful. History provides perspective with a glimmer of hope.

Scholarly studies have examined scores of cases and come to a somber conclusion that economic sanctions — trade and financial restrictions to change the target's strategic behavior — don't work most of the time.

Target nations can compensate. They can live without or substitute sanctioned products or technologies. Black markets develop that can circumvent. Writing in the respected Harvard journal International Security, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape examined 115 cases and concluded that sanctions moved target states in five instances only.

Such findings feed today's pessimism that sanctions against Iran likewise will fail. Ultimately, that may be true, but a careful re-examination of cases provides a more nuanced conclusion.

The one nuclear exception that Pape uncovers took place in the mid 1970s when the United States pressured South Korea not to purchase a French reprocessing plant. Concerned about the proliferation implications, Washington threatened to withhold the export license and financing for a Westinghouse reactor. Seoul, which had contemplated nuclear weapons, reversed itself mindful of its dependence on Washington's security guarantee. It then became a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

It turns out the case is not unique. Taiwan, also reliant on the U.S., halted a weapons program when Washington frowned. The United States and others had a more difficult time moving Brazil and Libya, countries less America-dependent. Still, broad sanctions imposed on Tripoli following the Lockerbie bombing stunted nuclear development. The halting of nuclear and related technical exports by the U.S. and others slowed Brazil's.

In both cases sanctions bought time. In Libya, an epiphany that the future lay not in terrorism, isolation or nuclear weapons but in access to global markets took place in 2007. The result surrendered the nuclear program to the United States.

In Brazil, the end of military rule in the mid 1980s wound down that country's weapons effort. In a third case, South Africa, economic sanctions contributed to regime change and the end of the nuclear arsenal.

Of course nuclear history also finds cases where threatened or actualized sanctions failed. President Kennedy's threat to withhold military assistance to Israel to stem nuclear weapons died with his assassination.

Restrictions on the export of sensitive technology, military and financial assistance to India and Pakistan following the 1998 weapons tests fizzled. North Korea, which suffered more isolation and hardship than any other country subject to sanctions, stuck to its nuclear guns.

The mixed record provides the glimmer that were Iran more like Libya and Brazil, both of which underwent degrees of internal transition, rather than North Korea, India and Pakistan, sanctions can buy valuable time.

And, indeed, sanctions have slowed Iran's program. But the Bomb may develop before political change or rethinking sets in.

This leaves stark options. Military strikes on nuclear plants raise the specter of broader war and terrorism. Acceptance of Iran into the nuclear club risks regional jitters and even pre-emptive war.

However, there remains one sanction rarely mentioned, quarantine. On Oct. 23, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy ordered ringing of the island nation with a naval blockade to prevent the injection of offensive weapons. He coupled the action with cocked conventional and nuclear arsenals. The result, Moscow bowed.

Could quarantine force the mullahs to do the same? Although not an island, America's regional naval and air domination in and around the Persian Gulf could cut Iran off from the world. Like the Cuban case, this would force the regime to make choices: Relent and verifiably halt all suspect nuclear activities, or assume the risk of being in the cross hairs of adversaries.

This review suggests that sanctions broadly defined hold more promise than many think. Whether they suffice to stop the mullahs' nuclear bent remains to be tested fully.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration.

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