Turtle Bay

The end of smart sanctions

The era of smart sanctions is fading. Today, pain is the point. On Friday, Dec. 2, the European Union reinforced its economic sanctions against Syria, effectively barring its firms from engaging in trade or oil exploration deals with leading state-owned Syrian oil companies. The measures build on earlier U.S. and European sanctions against the import ...

The era of smart sanctions is fading. Today, pain is the point.

On Friday, Dec. 2, the European Union reinforced its economic sanctions against Syria, effectively barring its firms from engaging in trade or oil exploration deals with leading state-owned Syrian oil companies. The measures build on earlier U.S. and European sanctions against the import of Syrian oil, setting the stage for a sharp deepening of Syria’s economic isolation.

The move followed a recent decision by the Arab League to curtail commercial dealings with Syria and ban travel in the region by top Syrian officials. It came a day after the U.S. Senate voted 100-0 for a bipartisan amendment sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would enable the Obama administration to penalize foreign banks that do business with Iran’s central bank.

Britain and France have recently urged the European Union to back tougher sanctions that would ban oil purchases from Iran. But the European Union adopted a weaker resolution that would add 180 names to a list of businessess and individuals whose financial assets would be frozen and who would be banned from traveling to Europe.

The measures, like a set of far-reaching range of trade sanctions imposed on deposed Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi‘s regime earlier this year, mark a departure from recent practice, when U.S., European and U.N. officials strained to carefully craft targeted sanctions — mostly asset freezes and travel bans — that targeted elites, rather than harming ordinary people. Indeed, President Barack Obama‘s administration opposes the Senate legislation, not because it would inflict harm on the Iranian population, but because it might inadvertently benefit the Iranian regime by driving up the price of oil sales, and undercut America’s ability to maintain a global alliance against Iran.

A decade ago, oil embargos fell out of favor after a sweeping 1990 economic embargo against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein‘s regime led to a massive spike in child mortality rates – some estimated that as many as half a million children died as a result. Secretary of State Colin Powell developed the concept of sharply targeted "smart sanctions" at the time, in order to maintain the fraying anti-Iraq coalition. The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, developed high-precision sanctions targeting intransigent African governments and rebel groups from Angola to Sierra Leone that threatened U.N.-backed peace efforts.

The measures did target industries that financed regimes — including timber and diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But the council generally stopped short of imposing comprehensive trade blockades that drew comparisons with Iraq, fearing that it might harm the innocent and prove politically unsustainable.

But the United States and its allies have been gradually expanding the scope of sanctions to compel governments to halt their nuclear ambitions or stop repressing civilians. Last year, the Security Council went beyond its practice of imposing sanctions narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, adopting a set of measures in Resolution 1929 that curtailed Iran’s ability to trade. Those sanctions fell short of the "crippling" sanctions advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but they were reinforced by U.S. legislation imposing a ban that threatened to penalize companies that sell fuel and other refined petroleum products to Iran.

Such broader sanctions drew concern from some countries. "Sanctions will most probably lead to the suffering of the people of Iran and will play into the hands of those on all sides who do not want dialogue to prevail," Brazil’s U.N. ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti told the council, after voting against the resolution. "Past experience, most notably the case of Iraq, shows that the spiral of sanctions, threats, and isolation can result in tragic consequences."

France’s U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud conceded that the tougher measures inevitably have an impact on "the man on the street," but said that the more focused penalties have been unable to compel Iran to abide by multiple council demands to halt its nuclear ambitions. "We have tried our best not to target the civilian population," he said, noting that the first several rounds of sanctions were directed only at the Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. "We have not shut down the banking system of Iran because it’s a banking system, we have shut down some banks when we have been able to show evidence that these banks were supporting or taking part in terror or WMD activities."

Russia and China have highlighted the human costs of sanctions in blocking further action against Iran and Syria in the council. In a briefing last week, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin warned that the initial Iran sanctions — which were targeted against Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program — were giving way to far more sweeping measures that could inflict suffering on poor Middle East nations and defenseless civilians. But Russia’s failure to secure Syrian and Iranian compliance has pushed the United States and European states to pursue sanctions outside the council.

U.S. and European diplomats, meanwhile, have lauded the effect of tougher sanctions, saying they have begun to inflict real pain on outlaw regimes. In Syria, trade and investment is off 50 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 12 to 20 percent this year, according to a report by the New York Times that showed evidence that the sanctions, while hitting the regime’s financial backers, were also having an impact on ordinary people.

But the humanitarian cost of sanctions has not figured in the U.S. debate on sanctions. In a Senate hearing last week, not a single administration official or U.S. lawmaker even mentioned the potential humanitarian impact of oil sanctions on Iranian civilians. Instead, they explored ways to promote Iranian freedoms, including proposals to prevent Iran from jamming radio frequencies or blocking Internet, Twitter and Facebook access.

"Iran’s economy today is struggling more than at any time since the 1979 revolution," said U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, citing the drop in the value of the Iranian currency and a projected annual loss of $14 billion in oil revenues through 2016. "Iran is now cut off entirely from three of the world’s largest financial sectors, and our efforts are paying off. Iran is now facing unprecedented levels of financial and commercial isolation. The number and quality of foreign banks willing to transact with designated Iranian financial institutions has dropped precipitously over the last year. Iran has been increasingly unable to attract foreign investments, especially in its oil fields."

There are of course significant differences between the sanctions imposed on Iraq and the recent cases Syria and Libya, where local opposition leaders have supported the imposition of sanctions. Libya’s National Transitional Council and the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group that is based outside the country, have argued that sanctions help limit the regimes’ ability to kill.

But they have also generated sharp criticism from some experts.

"The European Union argues that it is trying to stop Assad’s brutal repression of demonstrators, force him to release political prisoners, to get Damascus to allow NGOs and the media into the country, and to launch a genuine and inclusive national dialogue," Mikael Erikkson and Francesco Giumelli wrote in Foreign Affairs. "But these sanctions have been imposed with little regard for their impact on Syria’s civilian population — the population that the EU ostensibly wants to help."

"When we imposed and perpetuated sanctions on Iraq, we persuaded ourselves that the ends — containment of an aggressive regime — justified the means, and we blinded ourselves to the humanitarian consequences," Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who oversaw Britain’s sanctions policy on Iraq in the late 1990s, told Turtle Bay. "We should never forget that economic sanctions on Iraq, and primarily the oil embargo, did immense and long-term harm to the Iraqi population, a price Iraqis are still paying today."

But the potential humanitarian impact of the measures has elicited virtually no controversy in Washington. And for some, increasing hardship of ordinary people seems to be the point. Sen. Richard Lugar(R-IN) suggested last week at a Senate hearing that, if the threat of hunger has fueled political change in the Arab Spring, it might work in Iran.

"Again and again, people are saying the Arab Spring came in Egypt largely because of elderly people out in the hustings, not in Tahrir Square — but the people out in the hustings who were starving were not getting the subsidies from the government because the price of food is going up. That’s occurring in Iran, too. That can be accelerated very substantially," he said.

So far, the humanitarian impact has been hard to assess.

In Libya, where the U.N. Security Council imposed its most sweeping economic embargo since Iraq, there is no hard data on the humanitarian impact of the sanctions. The relatively quick collapse of the Gaddafi regime, and the restoration of funding to the transitional government, has likely ensured that the long-term humanitarian consequences of the sanctions are fairly limited.

In Washington, the humanitarian consideration "has fallen off the ledger when dealing with dictators, terrorists and proliferation threats," said George Lopez, the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute who recently served as an expert on the U.S. sanctions panel for North Korea. "The view is that we have this powerful tool and we’re letting abstract principles handcuff us."

When it comes to Syria, U.S., European and Arab officials appear to be "playing the clock," Lopez said. "They feel they can ratchet this things up in the short term in Syria, because in three or six months it’s going to be over. And the people on the ground said ‘bring ‘em on. They help us.’"

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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