By Kimberly Ann Elliott
As negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program resume in Geneva this week,
observers and policymakers are sharply divided on the role of economic
sanctions. Those who want to give negotiations a chance, including U.S.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, believe that the
United States and its allies should be willing to ease sanctions in
exchange for Iranian cooperation. Those who remain suspicious of Iran’s
intentions, including many in Congress, maintain that the United States
should double down on sanctions to force Iran to comply with its demands.
History suggests that once imposed, the promise to lift sanctions often
offers more leverage than efforts to keep them from leaking. To be sure,
there is no question that the sting of economic sanctions contributed to
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent charm offensive. But sanctions
were hardly the sole reason he came to the table: The window for
negotiations opened only after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a president who Iran’s
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, no longer trusted, was replaced by
someone he does -- at least for now. Domestic politics in Iran and the
United States will determine whether that window stays open or slams shut
once more. To keep it open, Rouhani will have to show his audience at home
that he can win some relief. And in the United States, Congress will have
to allow Obama sufficient flexibility to use sanctions as the bargaining
chip they are.
Throughout history, sanctions have rarely caused countries to capitulate
outright. Colleagues from the Peterson Institute for International
Economics and I analyzed 204 instances of sanctions in the twentieth
century (all the cases we could identify). We found that they achieved
part of their goals about a third of the time. Indeed, most of the
successful examples involved compromise and partial accomplishments. Only
in 12 cases did sanctions lead directly to their intended results.
Overall, we concluded, sanctions were most likely to be effective when the
sanctioner’s goals were relatively modest, the targeted government was at
least somewhat democratic, relations between the sanctioning and target
governments were friendly rather than hostile prior to sanctions being
imposed, and the economic costs imposed on the target were proportionate
to the goal sought. Finally, when sanctions were carried out with
ambitious objectives, success depended on international cooperation from
allies or international organizations.
Unfortunately for Washington, the Iran case does not meet the first three
conditions. The goal, suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, involves a
core national security concern for Tehran. Further, Iran is only nominally
democratic. Iranians vote -- but only for candidates the Supreme Leader
and Guardian Council approve. Finally, relations between Iran and the
United States, and increasingly between Iran and much of the rest of the
world, are hostile.
Balancing against that, though, is the unusual degree of international
cooperation that the United States has corralled to impose and enforce
economic sanctions. A Congressional Research Service report estimates that
sanctions have halved Iranian oil exports, which once accounted for as
much as 80 percent of the country’s exports, 50 percent of the
government’s revenues, and 20 percent of the economy.By our conservative
estimates, the sanctions cost Iran at least 5.5 percent of its GNP once
the EU oil boycott was fully implemented. That is a higher toll than in
all but 28 of the 204 cases we surveyed. It is also in line with the
average cost to targeted countries in cases where the goals were very
ambitious and sanctions contributed to positive results, including, for
example, the extensive UN sanctions against the former Yugoslavia that led
to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the Bosnian
conflict in the 1990s.
High economic costs, however, are no guarantee of political results. The
cost of sanctions for Iraq in the 1990s was ten times as high as for Iran
today, yet that sanctions regime was inadequate to force Saddam from
power, as some had hoped, or coerce his cooperation in the UN-led effort
to find and destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the
severe humanitarian impact of the sanctions, which were the most globally
comprehensive ever, eroded political support for the tough approach and
thus undermined the United Nations’ ability to enforce it.
The backlash against the sanctions in Iraq also led the United Nations,
the United States, and the European Union to shift focus toward more
narrowly defined sanctions, such as arms embargoes, travel bans, and asset
freezes, all of which target officials, not regular citizens. This type of
sanction, a wealth of evidence shows, is more effective as a signal during
later negotiations than as a means to coerce major behavior changes.
Sometimes, of course, sanctioners’ goals are ambitious and require just
such change. In those cases, sanctioning countries feel pressed to ratchet
up the pressure, as in Iran. And then, they must strike a tricky balance
between sanctions that get the target’s attention and those that are so
harmful to ordinary citizens that they become unsustainable.
TIME TO TALK
Those in Washington who are pushing for tighter sanctions are working
against recent trends. They want to cut off Iranian energy exports and
thus bring the economy to its knees. Ordinary Iranian citizens could not
possibly escape unscathed. And the Iranian government is already trying to
build international humanitarian concern by publicizing the impact of
sanctions on food prices and access to medicines. As in Iraq, pictures of
hungry children and the deathly ill will undermine political support for
sanctions, erode enforcement, and increase the pressure to lift sanctions.
A related problem is that U.S. sanctions already cover all trade and
financial transactions (with the exception of humanitarian items). In
other words, U.S. policymakers can put more pressure on Iran only by
coercing third parties to either forgo business with Iran or risk losing
access to the U.S. financial market. If Congress continues to push for
sanctions against allies and other parties that still import oil from
Iran, as is currently permitted by UN Security Council resolutions, it
could make the European Union and others simply stop cooperating.
For now, those who continue to oppose pursuing a negotiated solution argue
that the talks will allow Iran to buy time and continue developing its
nuclear capability. But their alternative, more sanctions, would also take
time to work. And with talks moving forward, trying to use them to bring
the country to its knees will simply increase the odds that the world will
end up having to contain a nuclear Iran.
Negotiations with Iran will not be easy, and an acceptable compromise may
be out of reach. But the possibility of easing sanctions has to be on the
table for there to be any chance of success. Congressional action to deny
the president that option or pile on more sanctions will likely make the
Iranian regime feel more threatened and more convinced that a nuclear
weapon is necessary for its security. The current sanctions against Iran
helped open the window for a diplomatic resolution. The question now is
whether the United States and its allies will pry the window wider or slam
it shut on their own fingers.