The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Sanctioning Iran

June 9, 2010

I just heard a radio discussion in which two pundits debated whether or not today’s sanctions will trigger a reversal in Iran’s nuclear program. The focus of the conversation was single cause = single effect — the sanctions either will or will not be successful gauged solely against the one criteria.

Obviously, that criteria is the most significant. But, like most policy instruments, sanctions are a complicated tool. I’ve been influenced most on this topic by David Baldwin’s Economic Statecraft. David argues that that there are multiple objectives behind almost every policy. To effectively evaluate the efficacy of sanctions, we need to consider the range of objectives that are motivating US and international behavior.

There are several obvious objectives held by the US in pushing for the sanctions. Here”s a brief list I’ve come up with based on reading various policy statements and comments from U.S. officials:

1. The most obvious is the desire to curtail Iranian nuclear development without resorting to the use of force.

But here are more:

2. To further isolate the Iranian regime in hopes of triggering a new popular uprising/pressure against the government after the public realizes that there simply will be no reconciliation with the rest of the world without significant policy change in Tehran.

3. To signal the global community the severity of Iranian actions with the aim of deterring others who might want to proliferate.

4. To demonstrate unity among the permanent five of the UNSC on a key challenge to the core mission of the UNSC — to preserve international peace and security.

5. To deter Israel from launching a preventive strike against Iran in near future — it will be almost impossible for Israel to strike with new sanctions now being imposed. Ironically, Israeli diplomats used this argument with the Chinese to help persuade them to sign on to the new sanctions.

6. To temper domestic calls for the US to launch airstrikes.

7. To respond to Iranian intransigence with something more than diplomatic condemnation, but less than the use of force.

8. To demonstrate to the world, that if force is necessary, it will be the last resort.

Of course, like all policy instruments, there are risks and counter conditions that might obtain from the use of sanctions. For example, if the sanctions do not trigger any change in Iranian behavior in the near future, there will be intensified calls from hawks to move to the use of force quickly — and this might happen in the run-up to a mid-term election. Hmmm, where have I seen this before?

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.