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Why economic sanctions usually don’t work

An aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak.AP/file 2006

At the end of January, the United States Senate backed away from a vote to impose new sanctions on Iran. The decision gives diplomats more time to negotiate an agreement to regulate Iran’s nuclear program. According to political scientist Bryan Early, it may be a wise move for another reason: More often than not, sanctions just don’t work.

Early, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany, is the author of the new book “Busted Sanctions,” in which he reviews 60 years of US sanctions policy. Embargoes and other economic penalties tend to be ineffective, he finds, and the main reason is that when the US cuts economic ties with a country, other countries eagerly pick up the slack.


“It doesn’t take very many,” Early says. “One or two countries can really hamstring the effectiveness of a sanctioning effort.”

In some cases, it’s not surprising that other countries don’t comply with our sanctions. There’s no reason to expect, for example, that China would refrain from giving North Korea foreign aid or that Russia would cease trade with Iran just because the United States says so. But often the countries that undermine US sanctions are our allies. For decades, countries like Great Britain, Japan, and Spain have conducted business with Cuba, taking a lot of the bite out of the longstanding US embargo. In fact, the embargo actually made business easier for those countries, in a way: With US firms on the sideline, they faced less competition for Cuban business.

The US government might have been able to stop our allies from trading with Cuba, but the effort would have come at a price we weren’t willing to pay. “It typically is not worth it for the US government to use that sort of coercive pressure for fear of disrupting its relationships with its allies,” Early says.


For a long time the situation with Iran was similar to the one with Cuba. US sanctions against Iran have been in place for decades, and were widely flouted for much of that time. It was only when the Iranian nuclear threat emerged as a serious issue around 2009-2010, Early says, that the “Europeans once again got on board.”

As a result of this greater compliance, sanctions have done real harm to the Iranian economy over the last few years, and Early credits them with bringing Iran to the negotiating table. At the same time, Early says a lot of European countries are already “chafing” against the sanctions commitments they’ve made against Iran, and he expects that the unified sanctioning front of the last few years will crack before long.

“These countries are already looking ahead to a period in which the European Union will relax its sanctions,” Early says. “The window that the United States has to negotiate with Iran from this greater position of strength, it’s probably got an expiration.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at