The Argument

Why sanctions won’t work

Economic sanctions haven’t been able to stop human rights abuses and they won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. By Dursun Peksen After some encouraging early signs of greater diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran, there are now renewed calls for the Barack Obama administration to get tough with the Islamic Republic. Typically, “getting tough” ...

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Economic sanctions haven’t been able to stop human rights abuses and they won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program.

By Dursun Peksen

After some encouraging early signs of greater diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran, there are now renewed calls for the Barack Obama administration to get tough with the Islamic Republic. Typically, “getting tough” means yet another round of sanctions. A new report, whose authors include senior Obama advisors Dennis Ross and Gary Samore, recommends a range of new sanctions to deter Iran’s nuclear program. Last week, France, Germany, and Britain drew up a list of Iranian targets for new sanctions, seemingly designed to give Obama a “big stick” to wield as he moves into negotiations.

It’s a stick Obama should think twice about using. Economic sanctions not only typically fail to induce authoritarian regimes to change their policies, but they are also counterproductive tools that deteriorate human rights conditions in the sanctioned countries. The Obama administration would be more likely to accomplish its goals for Iran and other regimes by lifting sanctions and seeking an alternative, noncoercive policy as part of a greater strategy of engagement.

The recent history of sanctions against Iran-as well as against countries such as Cuba, North Korea, Burma, and Zimbabwe-shows that rather than putting pressure on leaders to capitulate to U.S. demands, economic sanctions typically consolidate the coercive authority of authoritarian governments. Savvy leaders are able to use economic sanctions as a strategic tool for manipulating access to the resources that the sanctions regime makes scarce. By doing this they simultaneously enhance their authority and weaken the opposition’s ability to mobilize against the regime.

Foreign economic pressures also create incentives for authoritarian leaders to become more repressive toward opposition groups in order to preserve their hold on power. They often surmise that conceding to foreign pressure would make them look weak domestically and might result in the loss of their legitimacy and popular support. To mitigate any possible domestic costs caused by concessions to external economic pressure, authoritarian leaders have greater incentive to be less conciliatory to coercive threats and put greater pressure on opposition groups to demonstrate their resolve.

My research into the effect sanctions have on human rights conditions in authoritarian regimes shows that more abuses typically occur with sanctions in place and that the number of abuses is greater when sanctions regimes are more extensive. If sanctions can’t pressure Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe into respecting the political rights of his people, why should they deter Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from seeking a nuclear weapon?

Thankfully, sanctions are not the only option. An alternative course of action in the form of engagement-dialogue, regular diplomatic communications, and economic incentives such as foreign aid and/or provisions of low-interest loans-might be more effective in advancing human rights, democracy, and, in Iran’s case, cooperation with international nuclear protocols. These policies will be less costly to those groups seeking greater rights and political reform, and make target regimes more conciliatory toward external demands.

There are promising early signs that the Obama administration might be favoring such an approach. In her four-country tour of Asia last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at reviewing the economic sanctions against Burma, which has been ruled by a military junta for more than two decades. Clinton admitted publicly that the sanctions against Burma had virtually no impact on weakening the military regime. Similarly, with a new power-sharing deal and the formation of a unity government in Zimbabwe, the African Union recently urged the United States and other Western countries to lift the harsh economic sanctions against the country.

A plan of engagement that includes the lifting of sanctions would be the best possible way of helping these long-suffering countries move toward more political freedom. In the case of Iran, it might just prevent a nuclear showdown.

Dursun Peksen is assistant professor of political science at East Carolina University. His research interests focus on foreign policy, international political economy, and, in particular, economic sanctions.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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