New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


On Sanctions … and Iran

The political appeal of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign relations waxes and wanes with the times.  When I was an undergraduate, the conventional wisdom of the international diplomatic community was that economic sanctions against the Republic of South Africa – then still under the thumb of the apartheid regime – were both a moral imperative and a powerful tool that would help bring about the replace of that government by a more democratic regime.  Ronald Reagan was excoriated for his reluctance to engage in full-scale economic warfare against the South African government, and cheers went up when he was finally forced by Congress to sign a mild sanctions bill in 1986.

By the time I later worked in government in the mid-1990s, however, fashionable diplomatic opinion had come to loathe the efforts of Congressional Republicans to impose economic pressures upon nuclear weapons or missile proliferators – largely through mandatory sanctions laws (e.g., in the form of amendments to the Arms Export Control Act) that required the imposition of penalties in response to proliferation-facilitating transfers, but could be waived if the president certified the existence, in effect, of a compelling need to ignore the event in question.  Indeed, even the U.S. administration of the time, that of Bill Clinton, complained that mandatory sanctions laws were infringements upon presidential authority, resented having to issue embarrassing waivers, and openly admitted wanting to “fudge” intelligence assessments in order to avoid triggering sanctions penalties.

Not long after that, sanctions became more unfashionable still.  By the late 1990s, one was continually told that sanctions as a tool of nonproliferation – at this point, to constrain the ability of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq to reconstitute weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs – were immoral and counterproductive, hurting ordinary Iraqis and constituting a gross and punitive misuse of international power.  In response to such criticisms, the United States helped establish what became, between 1997 and 2003, the infamously corrupt and mismanaged “oil-for-food” program.  This program, however – and other so-called “smart sanctions” against Iraq – were still decried as vicious and unnecessary.  By late 2002, France, China, and Russia were practically stumbling over each other in their haste to circumscribe and weaken the Iraq sanctions regime (e.g., by steadily pushing to broaden the list of goods that could be provided to Iraq without restriction or review).

Yet in short order, in fact almost overnight as another war loomed in the Gulf, economic sanctions again came to be said to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, not least by those who had for years led the charge to undermine them.  Washington, it was now said, should put aside all thoughts of war, and let the admirable and effective sanctions regime control the threat presented by Saddam Hussein.  That sanctions regime helped ensure, as then-Senator Barack Obama put it in 2002, that Saddam “can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”  France, Russia, and China called for more time to let sanctions work.

But the pendulum would swing again with almost blinding rapidity, and in short order we were yet again being told that nonproliferation sanctions were undesirable, this time with regard to Iran.  The U.S. effort from mid-2003 to take Iranian nonproliferation violations to the United Nations Security Council beginning was for steadily opposed even by many of our diplomatic friends – with France, Germany, and even the United Kingdom preferring a concessionary side deal with Tehran in October of that year to the prospect of imposing economic pressures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.  The then-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei – now a prominent political figure back in his native Egypt enjoying the endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood – was so eager to protect Iran from Security Council action that he was willing to ignore his agency’s own governing statute and suppress the conclusions of his own inspectors in the course of his campaign against reporting Iran’s noncompliance with IAEA safeguards to the Council.  The Iranian sanctions push, we obtuse Americans were told, was entirely unjustified and would be counterproductive.

Nor was there at that time much interest in using sanctions as a tool against North Korea (a.k.a. the DPRK).  After Pyongyang was found in breach of nuclear safeguards by the IAEA in 2003, the matter was duly reported – as the IAEA Statute requires – to the Security Council.  Even when North Korea subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, however, the “DPRK file” languished  for years in the Council’s proverbial dustbin, thanks to the threat of Chinese and Russian vetoes.  (It took a North Korean nuclear weapons test to shake things loose.)  When the United States imposed its own financial sanctions against North Korean accounts in a bank in Macao in 2005, moreover – a move which seems actually to have put significant pressure on the regime in Pyongyang – we were excoriated for provoking the North Koreans and making diplomacy impossible ... and we duly backed down.

But don’t worry, for economic pressures are again back in fashion.  Now they are the “obvious” alternative to even harsher measures against Iran, after eight years of diplomatic efforts and offers of international nuclear power-generation assistance have produced no change in Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.  As noted, the current U.S. administration now brags about its success in imposing tougher sanctions on the Iranian government, with President Obama taking time to flag this issue last month in his second State of the Union address. (Meanwhile, however, U.S. economic pressures against Cuba have been derided and denounced in diplomatic circles for years, and are now being loosened by that same president.)

A cynic, of course, might see in such pendular shifts merely the fruits of results-driven political advocacy.  Sanctions, one might conclude, are declared to be both moral and destined to succeed where they are used to destroy right-wing governments, but immoral and axiomatically doomed to failure when used merely to change the behavior of regimes disliked by conservatives – except when the alleged efficacy of economic pressures can be cited as a reason to not to take more concrete action against such a rogue regime.  Through such a prism, assessments of sanctions by and within the international diplomatic community depend less upon actual analysis than upon the degree to which sanctions-themed arguments can be invoked against whatever it is that conservatives, especially American ones, wish to do.

I fear there is something in this criticism, at least with respect to the diplomatic crowd.  (The academic literature on sanctions is much more sophisticated, and less prone to shifting with the political wind.)  Nevertheless, one must also avoid conflating, as it were, apples, oranges, and other kinds of fruit.  There is, I suspect, no “general” case either for or against sanctions.  The wisdom of using of such pressures will vary from issue to issue, from target to target, and from objective to objective.  Inconsistency in broad terms, even when it turns out to be politically convenient, is not necessarily a criticism.  Perhaps the merits of each case really do point in the alleged direction each time.  Perhaps.

Academic studies have to fear sought to evaluate the impact and utility of economic sanctions as a means with which to pressure unsavory regimes into doing precisely the opposite of what they seem determined to do.  (My own undergraduate and graduate work on Southern African foreign policymaking and subcontinental regional relations, in fact, grew out of the interest I developed – after reading Gary Hufbauer’s early work on international economic sanctions – in Pretoria’s own fascinating role in putting pressure upon the white supremacist government of Ian Smith to share power in Rhodesia.)  The historical record is – shall we say – rather mixed, and the specific  circumstances that make any particular application of sanctions more or less likely to succeed are still quite uncertain and contested.

Yet people do remain fascinated by sanctions as a species of policy that can be evaluated as such.  Despite their chequered history, Americans seem in particular to have had a great affinity for economic pressures over the years, and a tendency to overestimate their utility as an instrument of international change.  This has been especially the case where sanctions were assumed to offer an “easy” alternative to messier tools such as military force.  This tendency apparently goes back to the very beginning.  In 1776, for instance, John Adams and others drew up what they called the “Model Treaty” or “Plan of 1776” – a blueprint, it was hoped, for how the new republic they were founding would conduct its relationships with foreign powers.  In part, it stressed the importance of avoiding traditional entangling agreements and the messy, conflict-prone geopolitics that come with them.  To replace such tools, the Plan of 1776 envisioned reliance upon economic relationships, which were seen as having an almost magical transformative power.

The prospect of commerce with the young United States, for instance, was expected to entice France and other European powers to support the rebellious American colonies against the British Empire.  Simply by trading and making money, it was assumed – or by not trading, so as to engage in profitable commerce with friends and deny our business to adversaries – we would win allies to our cause and succeed in our foreign relations, without the ugliness of actually having to engage in security-focused realpolitik, military alliances, warfare, or any other such unpleasantries.

Though in other ways he was for years Adams’ rival in U.S. politics, Thomas Jefferson seems to have tried particularly hard to put such principles into practice as president in the first years of the 19th Century.  With Britain and France by then engaged in the Napoleonic Wars – a struggle that had great implications America’s mercantile interests because maritime trade with Europe hung in the balance – Jefferson blithely assumed that the lever of American commerce could be used to force essentially all the Europeans to accept U.S. terms for regulating trans-Atlantic trade.  Indeed, he and his successor James Madison apparently saw U.S. economic leverage, and the imposition of an embargo upon the belligerents, as an experiment in “peaceable coercion” that would offer the world a general model for dispute resolution and the avoidance of war.

Unfortunately, Jefferson and his colleagues underestimated the degree to which other countries were willing to put such commercial concerns ahead of their perceived security and politico-ideological interests, especially in wartime.  His embargo turned out to be both an economic and a domestic political disaster for the young United States, but it did little to affect the behavior of Britain and France.

The instinct that economic pressures can essentially replace recourse to war and hard-nosed geopolitics, therefore, has a long pedigree in American practice.  This is not to say that such measures never work, of course.  (Sometimes, in fact, they seem to work almost too well, as with oil sanctions on Japan in the interwar years, which by some accounts helped lead to Pearl Harbor by seeming to present Japanese government with a stark choice between the gamble of war and the perceived inevitability of resource strangulation without it.)  Nonetheless, it seems clear that we have often been prone to exaggerate their usefulness.

Arguably, in fact, we still do.

In today’s world, such lingering “commerce is everything” presuppositions fit nicely with the secular and consumerist sensibilities of the modern West.  (Since for us everything revolves around prosperity and “pocketbook” issues, so must it be for others, right?  Our adversaries, we assume, surely aren’t all that serious in their fulminations about religion, nationalism, or ideology.)  Such notions also dovetail seductively with contemporary diplomatic predilections to believe that everything is somehow always neatly soluble though “peaceful” means, if only one wants such resolution earnestly enough, and that such resolutions can be achieved using only tools that have received the politically-correct imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council.  The result is a nearly boundless faith in the ability of economic sanctions to solve the most intractable problems.

So let us now cut to the chase.  I fear we may be overselling sanctions as a remedy with Iran today.  This is not to say that I am not delighted that it has finally been possible for the international community to bring real economic pressure to bear upon the regime in Tehran for its continuing violation of its nonproliferation obligations.  The U.N. Security Council began its nonproliferation sanctions on Iran in 2006, but such pressures didn’t have much by way of teeth until much more recently.  This progress is commendable, though it remains something between an embarrassment and a disgrace that this level of sanctions pressure was not achieved until eight years after Iran’s previously-secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz was publicly revealed in August 2002.

We owe today’s belated success in imposing U.N. sanctions, of course, principally to the Iranians themselves, whose continuous and at times theatrical contempt for international law and nonproliferation norms had by late 2009 left even their apologists fumbling for words, and their erstwhile Russian and Chinese protectors on the Security Council without a plausible rationale for further equivocation.  We also owe much of our success in implementing financial sanctions to the efforts of U.S. Treasury officials – and none apparently more than Stuart Levey, appointed by President Bush and retained until very recently by President Obama.  Building on U.S. experience with the North Koreans in Macao, a great deal of good work has now been done against Iran.

Unfortunately, however, today’s sanctions don’t seem likely to be enough to persuade Iran to reverse course and rethink its nuclear ambitions.  As there has been since the first public bloom of the Iranian nuclear issue in 2002, there continues to be a notable mismatch between the degree of pressure the international community has been willing to impose and the pressure that would be necessary to change Iran’s behavior.  The wise diplomats of the world are, apparently, quite skilled at doing too little, and doing it too late.

This is not necessarily to say that sanctions against Iran could not have worked, or that it is impossible that some combination of pressures short of military action could not, even today, still bring about a reversal of course in Tehran.  My own suspicion is that had the international community been willing to take the matter to the U.N. Security Council back in 2003 – after the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz first came to light – and had we been able then to impose the kind of sanctions now being applied, things might have been different.

This is merely supposition, of course, and it is quite possible that essentially no feasible economic pressures would have dissuaded the further development of Iran’s nuclear program even at that point.  Nonetheless, at least U.S. intelligence officials have claimed that for a time back in 2003 – when just such an early and resolute international response seemed likely, and the specter of the Iraq invasion loomed ominously in the background as an illustration of the potential costs of nonproliferation noncompliance – Iran actually suspended work on the weaponization-related aspects of its secret nuclear weapons effort.

One shouldn’t exaggerate the impact of any such suspension, of course, because the fissile material prong of Iran’s nuclear weapons effort obviously continued, and U.S. intelligence officials were quite right that the weaponization work allegedly suspended was “the least significant part of the program.”  It has long been understood that for a reasonably sophisticated proliferator, actually making a nuclear weapon – at least a simple one, or one for which the designs have been supplied by somebody else (e.g., China, by way of Pakistan, by way of A.Q. Khan) – is comparatively easy once enough fissile material is in hand.  Obtaining the fissile material, however, is the proverbial “long pole in the tent.”  Unfortunately, that work in Iran did not cease in 2003, not even temporarily.  As the IAEA documented as early as mid-2004, Iran continued to build centrifuge components and produce uranium hexafluoride centrifuge feedstock  even under the “suspension” deal it reached with the Europeans in order to delay Security Council action.  Today, Iran’s fissile material production work continues, and even some of the weaponization work Iran was alleged to have suspended in 2003 is believed to have resumed. (The Obama Administration has refused to release information from its new 2010 National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, apparently content to let misleadingly obsolete and seemingly Iran-exonerating earlier conclusions remain the last official U.S. statement in the public record.)

Nevertheless, even if there was only a temporary halt merely in specific weaponization work and no reassessment of the overall effort in Iran, this would seem to suggest that the regime in Tehran could then be influenced to some degree by international pressure.  This, indeed, was what U.S. intelligence officials claimed in 2007, observing that the alleged (and temporary!) Iranian halt in weaponization work was “directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.”  I do not wish to over-make this point, for a merely temporary halt that did not actually delay the overall effort cannot be described as a fundamental re-thinking of Iran’s course – and even if Iran were yet to be pressured into a strategic posture of hovering on the edge of weaponization, just a quick final push away from having a nuclear arsenal, this could still be terribly destabilizing.  But the 2003 halt, if indeed U.S. intelligence accurately understood things at the time – and it must be remembered that British, French, German, and Israeli intelligence officials have reportedly all disputed the 2007 U.S. claims – at least suggests that the clerical regime in Tehran is not immune to outside pressure.

All the same, that was then, and this is now.  Whatever opportunities were missed in in 2003 – e.g., by the concessionary side deal struck by Britain, France, and Germany with Iran in order to preclude taking the issue the Security Council at that point – the operative question for us today is whether the current package of sanctions will be enough.

I fear that it will not be.  Even assuming that Iran was potentially malleable in these matters in 2003, what was at issue then was whether the international community could persuade Iran not to take any further steps forward at a time when it was still in the comparatively early stages of a protracted, costly, and risky program.  Iran, moreover, was then still under the thumb of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but its government was run by the comparatively calm Mohammed Katami – and not yet, as it is today, by the radical, bombastic, and belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   The regime’s radicalized Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, a.k.a. Pasdaran) praetorians had also not yet accumulated as much influence and pervasive economic and political power as they enjoy today.  And, as noted, the specter of Iraq’s fate in 2003 at the hands of U.S.-led coalition forces also then loomed as an example of what might happen to “rogue” proliferators.  (As Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi put it in March 2004, explaining his own decision in 2003 to give up weapons of mass destruction, it seemed clear then that a country could get in “big trouble” for trying to develop nuclear weapons.)

It is quite another thing, however, to dissuade Iran – now – from taking the last step along such a long journey, especially after regime officials have spent most of the last decade making pursuit of their nuclear program into nothing less than a test of national, religious, civilizational, and personal manhood.  The sanctions being imposed today might conceivably have worked if they had been undertaken in 2003, but the odds of them working in 2011 are rather longer.

Even if rumored U.S. and Israeli covert operations such as the provision of subversively faulty equipment or attacks with the “Stuxnet” computer worm – which might themselves be said to represent a shift away from purely economic and “diplomatic” approaches in favor of something rather more like a “military” option, albeit a covert one – have delayed Iran’s uranium enrichment program and thus given more time in which sanctions pressures can bite, can economic sanctions on their current scale can persuade the Iranian regime to throw its nuclear effort out the window now?  I hope so, but I am doubtful.  President Obama boasted last month of his success in imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, but he carefully avoided mentioning the primary goal of these pressures: eliciting Tehran’s abandonment of its push to develop fissile material production capabilities.  This is likely no coincidence.  With nuclear talks having made no progress and Iran’s uranium enrichment work proceeding “steadily” – and now including enrichment to the 20 percent level, vastly closer to weapons-usable material, in terms of the separation “work” needed to reach optimum bomb grade, than is ordinary reactor fuel at 3 to five percent – achieving this goal does not seem any nearer than before.

Make no mistake.  I do not believe that likely failure in this respect vitiates the case for sanctions against Iran.  Sanctions pressures measures may yet help, inter alia: (a) slow the development of their nuclear capabilities; (b) make it more difficult for Iran to fund international terrorism (e.g., Hezbollah and Hamas) by reducing the revenues available to the government; (c) exacerbate divisive factional struggles over resources within the country’s ruling clique; (d) increase the incentive for Iran’s long-suffering people to follow Tunisia and Egypt in evicting their corrupt and oppressive rulers; and (e) reduce the extent to which nuclear technology will embolden Tehran to undertake additional provocations in its region and further afield.  The diplomatic front that has been mobilized in support of sanctions can also be used to help develop countervailing alliances and other groupings designed to contain and constrain Iran’s power, and to react to other destabilizing Iranian moves.

To some extent, in fact, the imposition and maintenance of a painful sanctions regime against Iran are particularly important if Iran does not reverse course, inasmuch as it is critical that we send a clear message to anyone else who might contemplate destabilizing nonproliferation violations that even if they did succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons despite our best efforts to stop them, such a course would exact a grave cost in international isolation and impoverishment.  Even if they cannot make it impossible, in other words, sanctions can certainly help make proliferation much more unattractive.  Perhaps we could thus make Iran an example of the pain attendant even to proliferation “success” ... and perhaps many future would-be proliferators will not find it appealing to pay such a price.

Even if sanctions cannot stop Iran’s press for a nuclear weapons capability, therefore, they remain important, even vital.  Nevertheless, we should entertain no illusions that economic sanctions are any kind of a “silver bullet” that will magically induce a complete volte face by the clerical regime in Tehran.  Things are, alas, much more complicated than that.  If an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is indeed as “unacceptable” as our leaders have repeatedly proclaimed it, there may be more difficult choices ahead than simply whether to vote for still tougher Chapter VII sanctions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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