Can renewed US sanctions force Iran to change?

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Can renewed US sanctions force Iran to change?

Economic sanctions are back in the headlines. Last week, the US administration announced that it was reinstating a host of economic sanctions on Iran that had been lifted following the 2015 agreement between Iran and six other nations, including the US, which sought to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. Towards the end of the week, Washington also announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Russia by the end of August, following allegations that Moscow had used a nerve agent in an attack on a Russian “double agent” in Britain.
There appears to be a common perception that the Trump administration has made imposing economic sanctions a favorite option among its foreign policy toolkit. However, the truth is that sanctions have been used by every US administration going back decades. Just as importantly, regional groupings such as the EU, and the international community itself as represented by the UN Security Council, have also resorted to economic sanctions to effect changes in the behavior of several countries and non-state actors, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990. 
While a consensus on the effectiveness of sanctions has proven difficult to reach, there is general agreement that, under the right conditions and terms, sanctions can work. According to one understanding, countries, regional groupings and the broader international community have “imposed economic sanctions to coerce, deter, punish or shame entities that endanger their interests or violate international norms of behavior.” The range of policies that sanctions seek to change is relatively broad, and includes halting the support or financing of terrorist groups and operations, countering drug cartels, enhancing non-proliferation agreements, and punishing egregious human rights abuses.
The example most often cited as “proof” that economic sanctions can work is of those that were imposed against the government of South Africa in the 1980s for its use of the racially discriminatory policies known as apartheid.

Reimposed US sanctions are designed to entice Iran to abide by the norms of international relations. The ball is now in Tehran’s court.

Fahad Nazer

Other nations that have found themselves the target of a wide array of unilateral or multilateral sanctions include North Korea, Cuba, Syria and, of course, Iran. While these nations usually protest against the imposition of sanctions and declare their innocence — often attributing sanctions to international conspiracies intended to “destroy” them — the truth is that no nation, including the US, imposes sanctions against another without cause, nor do they take the decision lightly.
There are different kinds of sanctions. Primary sanctions, the most common, mainly target a nation in an effort to change its behavior by denying it access to markets, raw materials, businesses and financial institutions in the sanctioning country. As the world’s biggest economy, the US is uniquely positioned to ensure that even unilateral sanctions are effective. There are also what are known as secondary and extraterritorial sanctions. While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they seem to have different objectives. According to one expert on the matter: “Secondary sanctions coerce other states into complying with a pre-existing embargo. Extraterritorial sanctions target foreign firms into compliance.” The US recently imposed sanctions on a Chinese financial institution for dealing with North Korea, which is under a wide array of US and international sanctions.
According to the White House, the recently announced sanctions against Iran target its “automotive sector and its trade in gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions related to the Iranian rial.” In November, additional sanctions will be reinstated, including those relating to “Iran’s energy sector, including petroleum-related transactions, as well as transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran.”
Regardless of the types of sanctions or the entities or sectors they target, the broad aim is often the same: A change in behavior. In the case of Iran, it is not only the US that has long sought such a change, but also much of the international community, including many European nations and most of Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and many others.
What these nations have always expected — and are now demanding — is for Iran to abide by the norms, conventions and laws of international relations. This means no interference in the domestic affairs of other nations and no support for terrorist groups and operations or militant groups seeking to impose their will by force on their respective nations.
It is clear that some supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, hoped that it would entice Tehran to moderate its policies in the region, and the world, and make it a responsible member of the international community. The evidence suggests the agreement had the opposite effect. An Iranian diplomat was recently implicated in a terrorist plot in Europe, for example, and Iran has significantly increased its military support of Houthi militants in Yemen. The US sanctions are designed to end such behavior. The ball is in Iran’s court.

  • Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer
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