Iran Sanctions may be ‘Crippling,’ but they are not ‘Working’ (Cher)

Ladan Cher writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

On Iran and sanctions, a necessary clarification: “Crippling” is not synonymous for “working”

In the tug-of-war between Iran and the United States, sanctions remain the Hail Mary approach to an ever-present picture in international politics: a nation wants to avoid military force but needs to take some kind of political action in response to the behavior of another nation. The events of the last few weeks have reignited a spotlight on the issue: sanctions are hitting Iranians drastically harder than before by limiting civilian access to life saving medicines, and within hours of President Obama’s reelection a new round of sanctions against Iran related to media censorship went into effect. The new round of sanctions and accompanying harsh economic consequences felt by Iranians will likely encounter a familiar response. Journalists, scholars and citizens will ask, “Are sanctions working?” and sanction proponents will reference the crippling economic effects as evidence of “Yes, they are working.” It’s time to reconsider the approach to this very important question.

A journalist posed the question to Kevan Harris of the United States Institute for Peace in Washington earlier this year. He answered, “[No]. The question has been asked for the past 3-4 years by US editors, and since it’s been asked repeatedly, it seems these editors won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I’m headed to Iran in September – before then I’d wager there’s not going to be any ‘sanctions working’ going on.” The impatience is not unique to Harris, a USIP sociologist who has spent extended periods of time in Iran for field research. Efficacy of a sanctions approach is a polarizing topic, and many get impatient with the Western journalism community’s consistent focus on it.

However, the problem is not the question of whether sanctions are “working”, which is a perfectly reasonable inquiry, but rather the way in which it is answered. The response to this question, and general discourse about the consequences of sanctions, is plagued by a causal connection between the immediate effects of sanctions crippling the Iranian economy and sanction “working.”

President Obama frequently boasts about sanctions as a formidable muscle in his foreign policy. At the third and final presidential debate, the president declared: “As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” This was immediately followed by boasting about crippling the Iranian economy as apparent supporting evidence for his assertion. Governor Romney did not attack President Obama’s argument, but rather piggy backed on it, going above and beyond support for a sanctions approach. The “keep on crippling and Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” logic seems unchecked in American political discourse.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see beyond the crippling. Iran’s laundry list of economic woes is not in short supply. The rial is disintegrating and continues to break its own records by hitting new lows. Those lows are matched by inflation-rate-highs (at 24.9% in October, the highest rate in seven years). Prices of basic goods in Iran continue to climb higher as the currency continues to collapse and public reaction to the currency crash peaked last month in the form of clashes between public protestors and riot police. Imports of essential goods have taken a hit, even drastically limiting citizens’ access to life saving medicines. The Iranian government’s sanction-anxiety is high and evident in reactionary, but unpromising, legislation such as the latest restriction on imported luxury goods. And although the Iranian government’s mismanagement has contributed to the mess, this is the picture of Western sanctions gravely wounding Iran’s economy.

But before making the leap between sanctions crippling Iran and sanctions working, it is necessary to identify whom these sanctions are crippling and whether that crippling guarantees the effectiveness of a sanction–that is actual policy change.

Irrespective of Iran’s economic crisis and calculating the role of sanctions as its instigator, we are caught up in a flawed analysis of whether sanctions are succeeding. Success is measured by the achievement of a goal, and it is easy to forget the ultimate goal of sanctions against Iran: to elicit a change in nuclear policy. Referring to crippling as synonymous with “working” overlooks the distinction between harming the Iranians economically and harming their nuclear policy. Sanctions are hurting the Iranian government insomuch as they are hurting Iranian citizens.

An overestimation of the causal link between the crippling of a country’s economy and instigating policy change by that country’s complicated government jeopardizes an accurate response to the question that began this article. The frequently cited “crippling” is only half the battle of the sanction. The problem is that the effectiveness of a sanction is an all or nothing inquiry. The economic pain inflicted is only as effective as the end goal of nuclear policy change. It’s still possible that the hurt to Iranian economy could be all for naught. Harming the Iranian economy, even drastically, does not promise the eventual effectiveness of the sanctions. It is a means to an end, and in Iran’s particularly complicated landscape, the economic effects sanctions are not a guaranteed means to an end of regime policy change.

Instead of addressing every new round of sanctions with the standard inquiry of “will these sanctions be harsh enough to finally work?,” a more fruitful consideration is whether Iranian people are feeling the blunt of sanctions that will only become harsher but to no avail in terms of influencing the regime’s nuclear activity? After so many years of sanctions against Iran and sanction failures against their next-door neighbor Iraq, the more useful analysis is whether, despite all the crippling, “enough” actually exists.


Ladan Cher reports about international law, human rights and the Middle East. She earned a JD in 2011 from American University Washington College of Law where she focused on international law and passed the New York bar examination in 2011. She wrote a comment for the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law on attempted recognition of Sharia divorce in United States courts. As a student attorney, she worked at the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative and the International Monetary Fund’s Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism Unit and Legal Department. She also holds a BA in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles and is currently an editorial intern at The Economist in New York. She understands basic Farsi and is currently studying Egyptian Arabic.

Twitter @ladancher

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11 Responses

  1. The 1941 US embargo on all oil to Japan including from Indonesia(Dutch East Indies) forced Japan’s military leaders to attack Pearl Harbor since they had less than two years of bunker oil(reserves) remaining before the shutdown of power production and all industry.

    Apparently the corrupt US government and its Military Industrial Complex along with the corrupt and criminal Israeli government are tightening and expanding the oil and financial embargoes and their financial cyber attacks on Iran.

    Are these questionable oil embargo and financial cyber attacks going to result in a significant portion of the reasonable and intelligent Iranians supporting dangerous retaliations to Israel and America just as the US oil embargo on Japan resulted in the Pearl Harbor attack?

    • “The 1941 US embargo on all oil to Japan including from Indonesia(Dutch East Indies) forced Japan’s military leaders to attack Pearl Harbor since they had less than two years of bunker oil(reserves) remaining before the shutdown of power production and all industry.”

      Your above-cited quote is revisionist history at its worst. It is well-documented that the Japanese began planning for an attack on Pearl Harbor in early 1941, as a means to knock the U.S. Pacific fleet out before the U.S. could enter the war. The U.S. embargoed oil to Japan in July 1941, after Japan had invaded Southern French Indochina, which they planned to use as a jump-off point to invade Malaya, Singapore, and the real prize, the Dutch East Indies and its oil. The U.S. oil embargo may have slightly affected the timing of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but certainly not the plan to attack itself, which was already on the shelf.

  2. A note to Ms Che’er:

    It is good to know that that you: “…understands basic Farsi …”, but …

    Just because Farsi is Persian in Persian, it isn’t appropriate to use it in English.

    Calling “Persian” Farsi is like asking: “Do you speak Nihonjin [Japanese]?” or “I speak Svenska [Swedish]!” Rather foolish, no?

    As one does not call a “Persian cat” Farsi cat or a “Persian rug” Farsi rug, so too one speaks “Persian” not Farsi!


    • Do you speak Farsi? B/c if you do then you’d know that you could say “sepas,” “tashakor” or “merci” for “thank you” in that language. The last choice is, of course, French, but has been absorbed into Persian. The 2nd choice comes from Arabic. In other words, it’s just a matter of convention and accepted practice as to what word gets adopted into a language. A good test is to check dictionaries, such as in
      link to
      or link to
      So “Farsi” is an accepted alternative to “Persian” in English. But “Fars” is not commonly used in place of “Persia.” There are many such examples in English, as well. E.g., “adios,” imported from Spanish, is an acceptable alternative to “farewell”:
      link to

  3. The US should pursue a policy of convincing the Iranians that they do not need nuclear weapons rather than convincing them that they desperately need them, which is the result of current US policy. Sanctions and threats of military attack would convince any country that they need the most powerful weapons that they can get for their defense.

    We should change tactics if we want a good outcome. This can be accomplished thusly;
    1) The US should guarantee that Iran will not be attacked by the US or Israel.
    2) The US should begin talks on a nuclear free Middle East.

    When we crank down the threats, Iran will feel less threatened. I would have hoped that would have been obvious.

    • Remember the good old days when all Russians and Chinese were assumed to be mad dog killers who would nuke us at the drop of a hat no matter how massive our retaliation would be?

      That’s dehumanization of the enemy. We dehumanized the Iraqis until we could pretend that they would try to nuke us so we could invade them. Now Iran’s turn.

      Your mistake is in assuming that the US and Israel are sincere in wanting to live peacefully with Iran’s current government. Given they don’t, it is actually useful to them to make Iran more of a threat, not less.

  4. During a visit to Iran six months ago, I noted fewer beggars during my entire visit than the number I see every day in about an hour in my home town.

    Judging by the amount of public begging here, I’d say that government sanctions are working extremely well on Americans. But here it’s called austerity…

  5. I really don’t believe that the sanctions were ever seriously intended to ‘work’ whatever that may or may not mean. I think the sanctions are intended to inflict hardship and cruelty upon the Iranian people – basically vengeance for imagined or projected ‘wrongs’. The US can’t come out and say this however, so they make up all kinds of rationalizations about how they are or are not ‘working’.

  6. As a lawyer in choosing to argue on working vs. effective you do disservice to international law. The congressional sanctions maybe called some Iran act or the other but in fact prohibit and punish third parties and sovereign countries. Are laws of the unite sate global then? Sanctions at best are a double edged sword and at worst an act of self flagellation and we are getting there.

  7. We like to hurt bad guys, and we have a high tolerance for collateral damage. In this context if sanctions are “crippling”, then they are working.

    This way the politicians are relieved from being expected to transform the bad guys into good guys, since this never happens. Applying physical and economic hardship to eighty million Iranians is as good as it gets, and is quite consistent with our need to codify “might makes right”.

  8. If the issue were merely US desire to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, there would be no impediment to negotiations, because it’s clear what both sides want.

    But why, why must educated people take this “red herring” of a reason at face value, without even mentioning the likelihood that there is another, more fundamental reason?

    The public behavior of the US is consistent with a position that what the US wants is nothing more or less than Iranian regime change, to a government which is pliable to the will of the US, at least where it matters.

    The only thing the US wants is an Iran which is not independent. And that is the one thing that Iran, rightfully for them, refuses to concede.

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