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Sanctions: Smart or Stupid?

March 2015 is seeing the looming prospect of yet more economic sanctions being levelled by the western powers against both Iran and Russia. As of writing the European Union is preparing to introduce another series of sanctions against Russia over its ongoing actions in the Ukraine. The nuclear talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran are scheduled to expire later this month, but could nonetheless continue for another couple of weeks. Unless some last minute agreement is reached whereby those negotiating with Iran (particularly the United States) are satisfied that country doesn’t have the sufficient nuclear infrastructure which would enable them to produce a nuclear weapon in short order (President Obama has even went as far as to demand that Iran freeze certain nuclear activities for at least a decade) these talks may well end without a conclusive and mutually binding nuclear agreement.

However they have produced some mild relief on the sanctions which have been leveled against Iran since the inception of the present clerical regime there over three-decades ago. Some observers are predicting that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is banking on the prospect that, even mild, sanctions relief will see to the entire sanction regime gradually founder, even if a comprehensive nuclear deal isn’t reached and those in the United States Congress who are earnestly vying to introduce even stricter sanctions get their way.

This presents an apt moment in time to reevaluate the nature of economic sanctions in recent times and determine how effective they are when it comes to achieving their stated goals. Historically Iraq presents us with a dire warning of how sanctions aimed at undermining the power of a regime can actually solidify that regimes hold on power over its people.

When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed the oil sheikhdom of Kuwait in August 1990 the U.S. assembled a gigantic multinational military force to confront him. International economic sanctions sought to pressure Hussein to withdraw. Opponents of militarily confronting the Iraqis, most notably the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, urged the United States to instead consider maintaining a naval blockade on Iraq and apply rigorous economic pressure on Baghdad in order to force it to relent without any additional bloodshed. As McNamara himself posited at the time, “Who can doubt that a year of blockade will be cheaper than a week of war?”

Of course the blockade wasn’t maintained that long. Saddam’s forces were kicked out of Kuwait militarily and by force in early 1991. However his regime wasn’t overthrown and Iraq remained under strict economic sanctions after that war. And the people who suffered under the regime were the ones who had to endure the brunt of the deprivations brought about by those sanctions. Especially the most vulnerable of that imploding society, the very young and the very old. Both of whom, it goes without saying, were incapable of harming or threatening anyone.

Those sanctions ended after the 2003 war and the ensuing instability and violence which permeated throughout Iraq, essentially, from then until the present. In neighbouring Iran we have seen over thirty-years of continuous economic sanctions take their toll on the economy and the Iranian people. The regime remains firmly entrenched in place and its paramilitary subordinates control large swaths of the economy which foreign entities could likely have invested in were it not for those sanctions. When policy, or lack thereof, is discussed in Washington in relation to the decades-old sanctions regime there is often talk about the need to have more effective and more precise sanctions. Smart sanctions in other words, aimed directly at the regime and its numerous economic assets and interests. Nevertheless the on the ground reality remains the same in Iran. The sanctions make the ordinary people of Iran poorer and less capable of determining their own fates (especially the middle class, who are of instrumental importance when it comes to spearheading any change in the present political or social order in Iran). Those who the sanctions are in place to undermine on the other hand are more, not less, empowered as a result of this set-up.

In Russia the case isn’t exactly the same. Nevertheless the economic sanctions – many of which do indeed target establishment individuals personally – will likely have a similar bottom-up effect. Hence the ruling class in Russia who support these so-called “pro-Russian separatists” in eastern Ukraine will be the last to feel the pressure of the sanctions while the Russian people, who have little say in the direction their ship of state is being directed, will have to endure yet more severe economic hardships. Something which is, unfortunately for them, nothing new.

Having both countries sanctioned could actually serve to drive them together to work and cooperate much more closely (certainly not a result Washington intends to bring about). You may have noticed both Iran and Iraq were simultaneously sanctioned throughout most of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s. Washington under the Clinton administration had a policy of dual containment which, as the name implies, collectively leveled economic sanctions against both Baghdad and Tehran. This led to trepidations that the rivals may have agreed to temporarily sink their differences given the common obstacles they both faced. Again a result which would have seen the enemies of Washington, which were themselves bitter enemies for a long time, actually cooperating together against Washington’s designs on them. Fresh, and harsher, sanctions on both Moscow and Tehran in the coming weeks could potentially see to those relatively cordial regimes work more closely together against Washington’s interests in the Middle East and beyond.