Tag: sanctions

Size Doesn’t Matter

Any woman would tell you that. What matters is what you do with it and whether you know how to use it. Whatever Brobdingnagian thing you’ve got going on there, it’s way more important to have a game plan and understand the sweet spots you need to target. Otherwise, both parties may come away less than satisfied from the encounter.

I am talking, of course, about the nuclear arsenal size and the ever-lasting dick-measuring contest that is international politics. After the ridiculous Trump tweet that Kim John Un’s nuclear button is smaller and less powerful than that of #45, IR Twitter was quick to point out Carol Cohn’s seminal “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” article that discussed exactly that. That the world of arms race is essentially a world of phallic worship and missile envy, replete with “penetration aids”, “thrust capabilities” and “vertical erector launchers”.  Who knew that a presidential candidate who mentions the size of his penis during a primary debate would actually bring it up during an international nuclear stand-off?!

Another piece that comes to (my) mind is the book by Stephen Ducat “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity”. As he observed, the ‘wimp factor’, i.e., the possibility of coming off as too feminine in politics is a major fear in many cultures, spanning from ancient Greece to modern United States. In a culture with a generalized ethos that equates penetration with domination, political hierarchy is often built along the same lines that glorifies ‘real men’ ‘with balls’ hence denigrating femininity and non-cis-gendered males and females. The wimp factor is especially relevant for global politics built on notions of hierarchy, and is often expressed in terms of gender, which favors the male, dominant position.

Continue reading


Partly Missing the Point: Rethinking US and EU Sanctions on Russia

Recently, Suzanne Nossel published a piece critical of US and EU sanctions against Russia. A number of her points make sense. For US-EU sanctions to really isolate Russia and thus have a chance to change Russian behavior in the short term, they need to have the participation of other major states in the system like China and India. Without those states, the isolation effort is doomed to fail. Moreover, the effect of US-EU sanctions will fade over time as Russia deepens economic interaction with non-participating states. The marquee example is the May 2014 deal for Russia to provide $400 billion in gas to China over 30 years (Russia and China announced a second deal in November 2014, but as one analyst notes, that second deal is not a deal on price or timelines, but rather a agreement to discuss further). Nossel also rightly notes that sanctions did not prompt Putin to change direction but rather to impose counter sanctions. And as the continued violence in East Ukraine suggest, Putin has not dropped his military support for separatists or changed his mind about implementing the Minsk II agreement. The sanctions, at least in the short term, has also lent superficial veracity to Putin’s narrative that the West seeks to prevent Russia from regaining its national greatness.

Continue reading


Tweets of the week #4

This was another busy week in global politics and I’m going to highlight some of the best tweets in my Twitter feed. Before starting, however, I will acknowledge that this post is late.

I believe my excuse is pretty good as it involves lots of late night baseball. I grew up in Kansas rooting for the local team — and the Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, the Royals won three consecutive extra inning games. All ended after 1 am Eastern Time. I then had to read for 30 to 45 minutes after the long and exciting games just to unwind enough to sleep.

None of those victories featured  the longest game of the week. As DC residents know, the Washington Nationals lost to the San Francisco Giants 2-1 in the 18th inning. I caught a bit of that contest:

Continue reading


Meaningful Punishment

Seeing reports in the New York Times today on further Russian aggression in Ukraine has me thinking about Ely Ratner and Elizabeth Rosenberg’s recent article entitled “Pointless Punishment?” where they argue that Western sanctions on Russia are at best pointless and at worst counterproductive. I think Ratner and Rosenberg (R&R henceforth) have a valid point in looking at the ways in which sanctions might produce unexpected negative consequences for the US. But also I think the events being reported today, and some other lines of analysis that they do not include in their article, suggest that not only is the punishment not pointless, but that it is important for the stability of the international system and the health of the rules that underpin it that all states, or as many as possible, impose a significant cost of Russia.


From Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/putin-tells-merkel-partial-withdrawal-east-ukraine-border-238941

From Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/putin-tells-merkel-partial-withdrawal-east-ukraine-border-238941

To be fair, R&R argue that eventually isolation of Russia would be counterproductive. It would in the long term weaken Japan (which needs access to Russian gas supplies) and push Russia and China closer together by weakening Russia’s ties with states like India, Vietnam, and Japan that see China in a negative light. So while R&R do not say the international community should do nothing, since Russia shows no signs of backing down in Ukraine the suggestion does seem to be that punishment (i.e. sanctions) should be rethought now and probably abandoned.


There are some parts in their argument I find problematic. First, isolation of Russia in the long term is not inevitable, even with sanctions. Europe and the US have given Russia a clear path out of the crisis, and it doesn’t even involve returning Crimea to Ukraine. So it is possible that increased sanctions will push Putin to reconsider, particularly since he has thus far used military force in ways that allow him a level of deniability, which dramatically decreases the domestic cost to him of a policy reversal.


Also, in the long term Russia’s economy is going to push strongly in favor of selling hydrocarbons to Japan. Russia needs diversified customers. While it is true that Russia just signed a gas deal with China, it is not entirely as R&R characterize it (that Russia and China can cooperate when they have nowhere else to turn). Russia inked the agreement at the lowest possible price they had indicated acceptable, suggesting that while Russia had nowhere to turn, China apparently had enough options to drive a hard bargain. That imbalance will only continue to get worse as Russia’s economy suffers under sanctions and lost investment while China’s continues apace. My guess (and it is only that) is that Russia’s business leaders if not political leaders understand this reality. So it is unlikely that Japan will pay a serious long-term cost for participating in the sanctions regime now. And in the short to medium term, the United States may step in to the breach if LNG exports are approved by the Obama administration (thus strengthening ties between the US and Japan).


Second, R&R seem to ignore the political reality in Europe, where important NATO member states are increasingly nervous about Russia’s behavior, and what it means for them. Abandoning sanctions or any efforts to oppose/correct Russian behavior may lead to a weakening of the transatlantic relationship as some of the most stalwart Atlanticist countries come to doubt the resolve of US to help hold Russia in check and in general support European allies. So while sanctioning Russia may isolate it in the short to medium terms, not doing so may damage the most world’s most successful security alliance in the long term.


Third, R&R overlook the ramifications of Russia’s behavior in terms of nuclear proliferation. No mention is made of the fact that Russia violated an explicit legal agreement (the Budapest Memorandum) lodged with the UN by which it bound itself, the US, and the UK to observe the territorial integrity of Ukraine in perpetuity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its legacy nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. Russia has completely violated that agreement. Failing to punish Russia undermines the international legal basis for assurances given to all non-nuclear states. The potential damage in terms of the nonproliferation regime is clear. So while isolation of Russia may be problematic, so to is the potential that the US might undermine sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program by appearing to dismiss the rule of international law and thus undermining the credibility of any promises given in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions.


All of this comes on top of the flagrant violations of the legal norms of sovereignty Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine. As with any policy, sanctions now and possibly enhanced sanctions in the future have a cost. But so does doing nothing, and in my reading the cost of the latter is far higher than the former. The solution, if there is any, to Russian transgressions in Ukraine is for the international community to come together with as broad a coalition as possible to impose sanctions on Russia, thereby undermining both an element of Putin’s legitimacy at home (economic growth) and defusing his nationalist narrative that he is leading Russia against Western oppressors. China may not participate, but if India, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and other major states outside the ‘West’ do, that gives the best chance of short-circuiting the narrative Putin is using domestically to legitimate his policy while aligning material incentives to encourage him to stand down on Ukraine.


Sanction Threats, Imposition, and Protest

Editor’s note: a more detailed version of this post previously appeared on my personal blog.

If sanctions are to succeed as a tool of coercive diplomacy, they must impose real costs on the target. Yet, in most cases, they fail to do this—at least, directly. TYellow rubber duckhe economic costs tend to fall disproportionately on the average person, while the regime and its elite supports often find ways to benefit from newly emergent black markets. But might sanctions put pressure on the regime through some other channel? Say, by increasing protests?

There have been many attempts at answer this question, all of which have been plagued by serious measurement issues. The recent release of new data both on sanctions and protests allows for a more convincing analysis, which Julia Grauvogel, Amanda Licht, and Christian von Soest provide in this paper.

One big problem any study of the impact of sanctions must deal with is that of strategic interaction. When an episode ends at the threat state, we don’t get to observe what would have happened if sanctions had been imposed. So if we don’t look at what effect threats themselves have, we’re not getting the full story.

GLvS thus look separately at the impact of new threats and new impositions on protest activity. They also allow for the possibility that certain types of threats (impositions) might have a bigger effect. Under the assumption that the primary channel through which sanctions increase protests is through signaling that the international community shares (some of) the goals of the protesters, they check to see if it matters whether the sanctioners specifically targeted the human rights practices of the target regime, whether the sanctions are narrowly targeted at the regime and its supporters, and whether they are multilateral in nature.

Somewhat surprisingly, the authors find that none of that seems to matter. We of course need to be careful, because the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, but it appears that context isn’t too important. However, they do find, as expected, that threats are associated with an increase in protests, whereas the actual imposition of sanctions is not.


Anti-Iran Protests in Afghanistan

In 1991, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, the rump regime of Mohammad Najibullah finally cut a deal with Iran. The Iranians were allowed to supply the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan with armaments and other goods through direct flights to Bamiyan in exchange for supplying petroleum to western Afghanistan, including to the Kabul regime’s military forces. The arrangement provided Tehran with unfettered access to an area which since 1981 was increasingly under its patronage. The Iranians hoped that they would be able to use this access to strengthen their proxies (i.e. Hezb-i Wahdat) in the conflict against Saudi backed Sunni groups (see Rubin 1995, p. 264). Throughout the tumultuous period that followed, Iran continued to expand its influence in western and central Afghanistan.

The deal highlighted the dependency of the Kabul regime on Tehran for petroleum and Iran’s stake in the character of the government in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, Iran is again flexing its muscles in Afghanistan through petroleum politics. Iran’s decision to block (at least) 700 Afghan owned fuel trucks from transiting to western Afghanistan has resulted in a major spike in fuel prices just as winter sets in.  Fuel prices in Herat are at an eight year high. Afghanistan has witnessed several protests directed against Iran in recent days.

Why is Iran doing this now?

Professor Juan Cole argues that Iran’s decision is a response to the US led sanctions regime imposed through the United Nations. Through Iran’s chairmanship of OPEC and its supply links to western Afghanistan, Iran can directly punish the Americans and reap a windfall profit. Iran will not allow OPEC to meet to revise production quotas which might ease the current price of petroleum. By halting fuel supplies to western Afghanistan through a virtual blockade, Afghanistan will have to rely primarily on a supply route through Pakistan which is vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Some supplies could also come through Uzbekistan, but Iranian officials have apparently also limited shipment through that route according to Afghan traders. Iran assumes that this will further impair the American occupation. And while ordinary Afghans will also suffer, Iran does not appear to be intentionally targeting the civilian population (although there are some speculative arguments that Iran is unhappy that the TAPI pipeline was not also routed through its territory). As Cole points out the Iranian strategy is brilliant: American consumers will compensate Iran for the sanctions regime and Iran will have the added bonus of making life difficult for the US in Afghanistan.

The only problem with the strategy is that if Iran persists in blocking fuel supplies, it will lose influence within Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that it will seek to cut trade ties with Iran if the fuel trucks are not allowed to enter Afghanistan. Afghans argue that by international law, since much of the fuel was apparently purchased in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, the Iranians do not have the right to stop the flow of these goods particularly as they do not constitute a direct threat to Iran’s security. However, Afghanistan remains reliant on the goodwill of its neighbors to keep supply routes open.  Afghanistan is again caught in the struggle between foreign powers and ordinary Afghans will bear the brunt of the suffering.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


Turning up the heat on Iran

In case you’re like most American academics and are on vacation, you may have missed the fact that America is seriously turning up the heat on Iran.

The US has begun squeezing Iran’s fuel imports and access to financial markets in response to Iran’s refusal to halt its alleged nuclear enrichment activities. A controversial new US law has been signed by President Obama which will sanction any company (regardless of national origin) that exports refined petroleum products or provides financing to Iran.

Corporations and financial firms have already begun to comply with the new US law which goes well beyond the mandate of the United Nations sanctions regime:

First, reports emerged yesterday that BP was refusing to refuel Iranian passenger airplanes in the UAE (and later Germany and Britain). BP was under no obligations to refuse service to Iran Air under the laws or policies of the Emirates or Great Britain. It appears that BP was acting on its own to curry favor with the US government.

Second, the EU announced today that some planes from Iran Air are banned from European airspace, although the EU indicated that this ban was unrelated to UN sanctions. The timing of the announcement however appears suspicious in the eyes of Iranians.

Third, for the last few weeks a large number of companies have begun cutting back on sales of gasoline to Iran.

Fourth, the central bank of the UAE has frozen the assets of entities blacklisted by the UN for assisting Iran’s nuclear program.

America’s application of extraterritorial laws on foreign firms conducting business with a foreign power, is a rather bold effort (although hardly unprecedented, particularly in the area of international finance) to force global corporations to choose sides. The test of this approach will come when the US actually has to retaliate against a major corporation from a major power that refuses to play ball even after being given a few years to unwind the corporation’s exposure to Iran. Given Iran’s status in global politics, it is unlikely that European powers will resist this blatant violation of their sovereignty by the US; however, China may actively resist or at least lodge a complaint against the US at the World Trade Organization. China has already stated publicly that the US has overstepped UN sanctions. Whether the US would actually be willing to sanction a Chinese firm that does business with Iran is unclear since the US needs China’s continuing support for the sanctions regime and any future actions at the UN Security Council. (In the past, the US did sanction 46 Chinese firms under the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000.)

Iranian Reactions

Iran has mainly reacted to these developments defensively. Ayatollah Khameni urged Iranian citizens to conserve on electricity and imported goods. The head of the Iran-UAE Chamber of Commerce has stated that Iran will cut back trade ties with the UAE in response to its actions. Iran’s President has stated his country will defend its interests if Iranian ships are inspected in accordance with the latest round of UN sanctions.

Israel also confirmed this week that Iran moved radar equipment to Syria (although the movement may have occurred in mid-2009) in an effort to gain early warning if Israel launches a preventive attack on Iran. However, both Iran and Syria have denied the Israeli reports. Israel also accuses Iran and Syria of transferring short range and anti-aircraft missiles to the armed wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Not So Grim?

So the situation looks tense, but I don’t think things are actually as grim as they appear.

If the past is a reliable guide, it is highly unlikely that these new US laws and the latest round of UN sanctions will produce policy changes in Iran or trigger a popular uprising leading to regime change. Iran is unlikely to be destabilized in this manner, although its citizens will undoubtedly suffer econmically. My hunch is that American diplomats realize this and that the real aim of the US strategy is to pinch Iran enough to bring it back to the negotiating table and to persuade Israel not to attempt a preventive attack while non-military options are being explored. Iran will probably return to negotiations as this buys time for their policy objective, which is likely to be the attainment of “nuclear latency” rather than actually building or testing a nuclear device. I am also skeptical that Israel would launch a preventive strike at this time given its disastrous diplomacy over the last year and its military’s poor performance in the 2006 War. Finally, the Iran issue is not very useful for the Obama administration. Managing another war would be a disaster for the current government both politically and economically. So a prolonged process of negotiation that regulates (as opposed to resolving) the tensions between Israel and Iran is probably the ideal solution for the US, at least until the President and his party are politically less vulnerable.

Of course, this is all just my hunch and I’d love to know what others think about these developments…


Sanctioning Iran

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?


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑