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More pain but not gain: productive and unproductive sanctions

The United Nations Security Council recently mandated additional sanctions against North Korea. In Washington and Brussels new sanctions against Iran are under discussion should negotiations with the new administration fail. Further tightening the screws, however, is unlikely to be successful in changing these regimes’ policies and, in the case of Iran, has become dangerous.

It is clear that the sanctions imposed on North Korea and Iran have not had the intended political results. Neither the North Korean nor the Iranian leadership seems to be willing to change the course of its respective nuclear program. Will stronger sanctions be more successful? Probably not. While additional sanctions will have further material effects, there is little prospect that this will lead to desired policy changes in North Korea or Iran.

Sanctions can be successful in various ways. They can change the cost-benefit calculations of decision makers. They can also weaken the political support for leaders and help to bring a government to power which is willing to change policies. In the case of South Africa, the cost of sanctions to the white elite contributed to their willingness to negotiate with the African National Congress. The sanctions against the regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia helped to strengthen the opposition until it unseated this warlord.

Contrary to popular belief, the rate of success of sanctions in achieving political objectives does not linearly increase with the damage sanctions are doing. On the one hand, sanctions that have no bite at all, such as weak arms embargoes, are of little use. On the other hand, recent work on targeted versus comprehensive multilateral sanctions indicates that success rates are not substantially different. Increasing economic pain does not, in general, increase political gain.

In the cases of Iran and North Korea, both theoretical and empirical considerations point to the likely failure of more comprehensive sanctions. In both cases, sanctions originally targeted members of the elite, through asset freezes and travel restrictions. In addition, sanctions on technologies relevant for nuclear and missile programs were introduced. Both types of sanctions raised the costs of the targeted policies and constrained relevant activities.

However, when these sanctions did not have the desired political results of reversing targeted policies, they were ratcheted up to include additional financial sanctions and trade restrictions. Economic effects spread to the wider economy and the general population.

While in North Korea’s isolated economy the ripple effects of sanctions for the average person are limited, in the case of Iran they are beginning to hurt many people. Sanctions are contributing to a high rate of inflation; income from the sale of oil has been almost halved, inducing the government to reduce various types of subsidies. Recent studies show that health care for the average person is deteriorating.  This is primarily because Iranian importers of medication and medical instruments are having difficulty finding foreign banks willing to conduct business with them. While medical supplies, as well as foodstuffs, are exempt from all sanctions, banks are afraid to risk violating financial bans mandated by the U.S. government and the European Union.

The additional sanctions do not hit decision makers directly. However, such sanctions could convince them to change policies if they diminished their power base or even, in a kind of revolutionary effect, lead to their downfall and replacement by a more compliant government.

Nevertheless, there are no indications that this is happening or likely to happen. The young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, seems to be in control of his autocratic regime. Furthermore, dissent and political opposition is not tolerated in totalitarian North Korea.

In contrast, limited political debate is possible in Iran as long as the ideological and political foundations of the regime are not questioned, although arguments against nuclear energy do not fall into this category. However, there is no politically relevant group in Iran opposing the nuclear programme as presented by the leadership, of which the new President, Hassan Rouhani, is an integral part. There also is, to the extent that opinion polls are reliable, strong popular support for the program. Sanctions are predominantly perceived as unfair Western punishment. The Iran sanctions demonstrate the ‘rally round the flag’ effect of sanctions first described by Johan Galtung in the context of sanctions against Rhodesia in the 1960s.

If sanctions are not likely to have the desired political effect, are they completely useless? Certainly not. Sanctions against elites clearly signal the discontent of the international community with a regime’s policies. Technology-related sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear and missile programs, and have had the intended denial effect.

Sanctions are sometimes seen as an alternative to war. There is much to say in favour of exhausting all alternatives before going to war. However, there is also a dangerous dynamic here. Turning the sanctions screw tighter and tighter with no success in sight may make war the seemingly logical next step of action. Sanctions against Iran have become counterproductive in this way. Their lack of success in stopping the Iranian nuclear program will encourage those who want to go to war—and this may in turn draw supporters of sanctions to follow them.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).


Dr Michael Brzoska is an Associate Senior Researcher at SIPRI.