The Inefficacy Of Sanctions

This past weekend, President Joe Biden imposed a new set of sanctions on Iran. This comes as he and other European leaders set out to discuss the potential easing of sanctions during the G-20 global finance conference in Rome. The leaders made it clear that they would not lift sanctions until Iran eased back alleged efforts of developing nuclear weapons in their facilities. According to NPR, Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently announced via Twitter that Iran would return back to the negotiating table before the end of November. 

Sanctions are often praised as the peaceful alternative to warfare. According to consensus, imposing sanctions on a target country is a much better approach towards achieving geopolitical goals than military intervention. However, just how effective are these economic sanctions in this case, the more general ones––and why do countries, most especially the United States, continue to impose them despite devastating outcomes on innocent civilians? Through examining international relations and the grounds of these sanctions, their continued imposition can be explained by political tactics, and a misdirection of the purposes provided by these economic barriers.

In the past decade, the U.S. has applied sanctions on Iran in an alleged effort to limit their nuclear arms program and force their compliance, especially with matters pertaining to Middle Eastern geo-politics. However, these sanctions are only hurting the citizens; the government hasn’t been dealt with much harm overall. In fact, their anti-American sentiments have grown stronger, which has even trickled down to supporters of the regime. These sanctions have been imposed through inadequate access to medical supplies, unsafe aircrafts, and other devastating effects on the Iranian economy. Yet, the American government seems to show no signs of flexibility in regards to lifting these sanctions and approaching their relations with Iran through different means, which can seem a tad confusing. To understand this and why their rigidity persists, we need to first examine the politics that go behind sanctioning a country in the U.S., and how this decision-making comes into play with regards to Iran. 

Since 1979, Iran and Western countries have butted heads over foreign and domestic policies. The U.S. and other nations have feared Iran’s uranium enrichment program for decades, convinced that it is intended for developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. imposed sanctions to allegedly secure peace in the region. However, they failed to consider the effects of these sanctions on innocent civilians. The first set of sanctions imposed on Iran occurred in 1979 after the Tehran hostage crisis. The U.S. froze $12 million in Iranian assets, hurting their economy immensely.

Later in 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Iran was again sanctioned for going against the U.S. and accusations of “supporting terrorism.” Over and over, Iran has been sanctioned by the U.S. for a number of reasons: refusing to comply with uranium enrichment programs, supporting organizations that tend to go against American values, etc. It is also important to note that these sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy and its citizens. Many Iranians are left unable to afford medicine due to shortages, and doctors often have to use old medical equipment. These sanctions are meant to harm the Iranian government, but instead they only hurt the innocent Iranian civilians. 

Ideally, these sanctions would have been able to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and persuade the government to follow policies that align more with those of the U.S. Fast forward to today and tensions between Iran and the U.S. are at an all time high. Many Iranians don’t have access to proper treatment and the Iranian currency has plummeted. The U.S. intention might have been to develop a concrete strategy for the limitation of potential nuclear weapons, but their execution was poor. Case studies like this and many others prove that the U.S. needs to realign its values in order to have both a solid foreign policy that promotes peace, and a larger priority on American citizens. 

Smart sanctions are an ideal alternative to those we currently see on nations like Iran today. The concept of smart sanctions is still relatively new; the idea is that sanctions are imposed on the leaders responsible rather than the civilian population, minimizing the amount of humanitarian suffering. An example of this can be shown in the case of Zimbabwe; their government has faced numerous allegations of corruption and mismanagement, prompting the U.S. and the European Union (EU) to impose targeted sanctions from 2002 until present. These sanctions include financial restrictions on the individuals within the government responsible for said corruption, as well as a ban on arms sales and freezing of assets.

According to the BBC, 56 companies and organizations are also said to be hit by these economic sanctions. Though Zimbabwe’s economy is said to have taken a heavy hit since the sanctions were implemented, there is little evidence to support the claim that the economic crisis is due to their imposition. Instead, the U.S. and the EU have shifted the blame onto the Zimbabwe government, describing its current state as a result of “catastrophic mismanagement” on the part of government officials, as reported by the BBC. These narrower, targeted “smart” sanctions can provide a better alternative to the general economic sanctions that are still currently seen in countries like Iran. Though both are most likely to create a big impact on the target country’s economy, these smart sanctions are preferable due to their ability to hit the target directly and avoid a possibly devastating effect on innocent citizens. 

It’s an indisputable fact that sanctions simply do not work the way countries imposing them expect; in most cases, the civilian population is dealt the most harm. It is unfair to depend on them to exert pressure on their government officials. Additionally, in the harsh conditions that these sanctions create for the citizens, they more often than not avoid endorsing the sending country’s actions against their own people. Thus it is imperative to seek different alternatives to the use of sanctions, such as much narrower, targeted versions imposed on the ruling elite or emphasizing multilateral cooperation among the international community. Simply stating that sanctions constitute a justifiable act against a country because they substitute military coercion is not enough; other routes must be taken in order to minimize humanitarian suffering. In the question of whether sanctions are a viable policy, it is evident that they cause more harm than benefits, and that the ends certainly do not justify the means.


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