Sanctioning Russia Won’t Stop Putin. Just Look at Iran.

Iran is a cautionary tale that stubborn autocracies can’t be disciplined with sanctions.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, prior to their meeting in Moscow on Oct. 6, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities have taken the severity of Russia’s war in Ukraine to a whole new level. Graphic footage emerging of bullet-riddled bodies with tied hands, charred corpses piled together dumped in the streets, and buildings and cars blown to pieces have exposed how an apparently unquenchable thirst for power and domination can be boundless. In response, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, Spain, the United States and a handful of other countries expelled more than 325 Russian diplomats from Moscow’s missions.

At the same time, the sanctions machinery of the United States and European Union is in full swing, and Russia is being targeted by layer upon layer of punitive measures. In a short span of time, Russia surpassed Iran as the world’s most-sanctioned country, and Western powers are brandishing further actions to squeeze the Russian economy to the point that the Kremlin capitulates and gives up its campaign of military aggression.

Sanctions have been utilized incrementally as a means of statecraft for decades, with the United States the foremost user of these coercive measures. At present, at least 24 countries are being targeted by U.S. sanctions, which are either partial—applying to certain aspects of trade and business with a country’s entities, as is the case with Nicaragua and Venezuela—or blacking out trade with a country entirely, as is happening with Iran.

The atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities have taken the severity of Russia’s war in Ukraine to a whole new level. Graphic footage emerging of bullet-riddled bodies with tied hands, charred corpses piled together dumped in the streets, and buildings and cars blown to pieces have exposed how an apparently unquenchable thirst for power and domination can be boundless. In response, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, Spain, the United States and a handful of other countries expelled more than 325 Russian diplomats from Moscow’s missions.

At the same time, the sanctions machinery of the United States and European Union is in full swing, and Russia is being targeted by layer upon layer of punitive measures. In a short span of time, Russia surpassed Iran as the world’s most-sanctioned country, and Western powers are brandishing further actions to squeeze the Russian economy to the point that the Kremlin capitulates and gives up its campaign of military aggression.

Sanctions have been utilized incrementally as a means of statecraft for decades, with the United States the foremost user of these coercive measures. At present, at least 24 countries are being targeted by U.S. sanctions, which are either partial—applying to certain aspects of trade and business with a country’s entities, as is the case with Nicaragua and Venezuela—or blacking out trade with a country entirely, as is happening with Iran.

Economic sanctions have vocal advocates both in the White House and in the EU who tend to be too sanguine about the effects these packages can inflict on misbehaving governments’ calculations. But there is ample evidence that sanctions are becoming increasingly dysfunctional, at times even ending up having the boomerang effect of incentivizing disobedience and malign conduct.

The saga of Iran sanctions, in place since 1979, is a textbook example of how sanctions fail to alter a government’s behavior that the international community deems to be irresponsible and detrimental to global peace and security.

Iran has been crushed by a steamroller of economic sanctions that were first imposed in 1979 by the Carter administration in response to the hostage crisis and then evolved over time into a sophisticated structure to penalize Iran over its nuclear program and regional escapades, as well as its human rights record. The country is virtually sealed off from the international banking and financial sectors, stripped of the ability to engage in trade, even with its close partners.

Culminating in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, these sanctions, in short, have been a failure. The humanitarian costs of the sanctions have been staggering, and Iran’s civil society and middle class have had to pay a dear price, be it in the form of disenfranchisement from medicine, safe aviation, international mobility, educational opportunities, and COVID-19 vaccines, or their shrinking purchasing power, mushrooming poverty, and a currency that lost 70 percent of its value since Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

It is difficult to gauge the total damage Iran has incurred from the sanctions, because the oil-dependent economy is diminishing over time, and there are various components that should be factored into the country’s economic freefall, including corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, lack of transparency, and bureaucratic labyrinths, in addition to sanctions. However, last year, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged U.S. sanctions have imposed damages on the national economy adding up to $1 trillion.

Yet although Iranian citizens have been at the end of their tether with a strained economy and lives that are becoming increasingly untenable, occasionally prompting them to storm the streets and stage anti-government protests, the formidable sanctions have done little to change the government’s overall behavior and policies, and there are those who suggest they even have produced a counterforce by radicalizing Tehran’s regional conduct and nuclear priorities.

In particular, in the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran accelerated its race to new nuclear thresholds and reneged on its commitments under the deal by enriching uranium to 20 percent and 60 percent, and even going the extra mile to produce metal uranium. These are some basic indications that the economic pressure has backfired and, instead of having a bearing on the government or coaxing it into diplomacy, has merely decimated a vulnerable middle class that is admittedly the sacrificial lamb in an ongoing vendetta involving Iran and the world powers.

Further evidence of this assumption is Iran’s risky escalations in the Persian Gulf, targeting of Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities through its Houthi proxies, and nearly going to war with the United States after showering the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province with missiles in retaliation for the assassination of its top commander Qassem Suleimani in January 2020.

These developments can be read as the failure of the sanctions regime: The government in Tehran has learned how to survive—to find workarounds to dodge the sanctions, sneak into the black market, empower the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to keep the national economy afloat—and has emerged resilient while the United States exhausts its options. In 2016, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned that the overuse of sanctions against adversaries will water down their effectiveness and chip away at the United States’ leadership role.

Russia bears many hallmarks of Iran’s authoritarian governance model. Its democratic credentials are scant, there is little willingness to open up to the world and show transparency and accountability, and civil liberties and social rights are not guaranteed. Russia is also a major world power, and with an annual defense expenditure of $61.7 billion as of 2020, and it boasts the world’s second-largest military. It produces its own arms and exports a massive quantity, including fighter jets, to traditional customers.

Draconian sanctions, divestment, and embargoes, however inclusive and pungent, will not bring such a militarized juggernaut as Russia to its knees or deter it from further aggression in Ukraine, nor will they stave off its hypothetical prospective adventures in Europe, if there are indeed any (including the idea of invading Poland, raised by Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland).

Iran’s experience is a cautionary tale that stubborn autocracies—particularly those rich in energy reserves and with allies prepared to give them economic lifelines at times of crisis—cannot be disciplined with economic sanctions, especially given the international financial system’s numerous loopholes and the waning traction of the U.S. dollar, which is gradually giving way to other local currencies.

Also, when economic sanctions are used to reform fundamental or existential elements of other governments’ behavior, it is highly likely they will fail. To Iran, its nuclear enterprise is not a purely technological quest or a demand for alternative energy resources but a reputational battle through which it can manifest its impregnability as a regional power; as such, it will tolerate the sanctions burden and refuse to flinch. Only when diplomacy came into play did Iran show flexibility on its do-or-die nuclear adventures. The same holds true for Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is under the delusion that Ukraine is and should be part of Russia, so he will take special pains to deliver on this ambition, even at the cost of his country and people being suffocated under sprawling sanctions.

Sanctions might still have proponents who view them as an alternative to military campaigns and costly wars, but the truth is that they are being stripped of their potency as more countries are added to the catalog of sanctioned states, which means they are acquiring the know-how to subsist under and circumvent the sanctions and are sharing that knowledge with others targeted.

In 2019, Zarif said his country had obtained a “Ph.D. in sanctions busting,” which is a pretty much realistic statement. Sanctioned nations, when facing mounting international isolation, insulate themselves from external coercion, cobble together autarkies that can cater to the barebones needs of their populace to survive, and eventually prove resistant to the fluctuations of global trade without being affected radically.

In the case of Russia, what needs to be done to ensure its harrowing military expedition in Ukraine comes to an end and its bellicosity is rectified is building on a combination of diplomacy, exclusion, and legal action. In this context, exclusion is substantively different from isolation. Russia’s membership in international organizations that give it the clout it currently maintains in world affairs is a prerogative it should be deprived of. Ousting Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe were effective first steps.

Chapter 18 of the U.N. Charter includes provisions to amend the charter, which requires the vote of a two-thirds supermajority of General Assembly members for adoption. A consensus amendment can serve as a pathway to expelling Russia from the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member. After all, Russia is now in breach of different sections of the U.N. Charter by seriously jeopardizing global peace and security.

Countries that agree Russia’s gambit in Ukraine cannot be condoned should consider revoking the diplomatic immunity of Putin and other high-ranking officials. Membership in international forums and the freedom to travel to different countries are privileges that rake in substantial legitimacy for the Russian authorities, and they can be denied these benefits if the world acts concertedly. If members of the Russian government are declared persona non grata in stages, they can potentially face judicial consequences while abroad.

These are some of the options that the international community can leverage to reprove Russia and ensure the war in Ukraine is extinguished before it engenders future cycles of bloodshed. If these alternatives are enforced prudently, the Kremlin will figure out the costs of continued warmongering. Yet they shouldn’t be seen as a magic wand that can be waved to quickly restore normalcy to a world whose geopolitical equations have been upended and that will look fundamentally different moving forward.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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