Lesley Stahl (on US sanctions against Iraq): We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima.... Is the price worth it?”
Madeleine Albright (then-UN ambassador, later secretary of state in the Clinton administration): “I think this is a very hard choice, but... we think the price is worth it. – 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996
US economic sanctions against North Korea have failed for 40 years... Economic sanctions are blunt instruments that wreak havoc with an economy. They especially afflict a country’s ordinary citizens, often without affecting the ruling elite. – Thomas Henriksen, Hoover Institute, Stanford University, October 1998
Wednesday’s protests against the Iranian regime are an encouraging sign that sanctions imposed on that country are beginning to bite, but it is way too early to deem them a sign of success in halting Tehran’s drive for nuclear capability.
For although it certainly would be a welcome outcome if the sanctions induce Iran to end its nuclear program before it attains the ability to weaponize the enriched uranium it has/will have produced, there is good reason to doubt that they will.
Flawed logic of sanctions
Experience leaves scant room for optimism. In recent decades, sanctions – no matter how severe – have had little success in coercing dictatorial regimes to comply with demands from the international community.
The operational rationale of sanctions, as an instrument of policy, has, in many respects, been deeply flawed, particularly if their objective is to elicit timely compliance from a despotic regime. To a large degree, the envisaged mechanism of their operation is entirely illogical.
In principle, sanctions try to achieve their goal by imposing punitive measures – typically the denial of welfare-producing goods/services – on a civilian population that has little influence on, and whose well-being is largely irrelevant to, the despotic rulers from whom compliance is required.
Those who are subject to the sanctions have little, if any, contact with those who are the object of the sanctions. It is thus highly improbable that the suffering of the former will induce the latter to make the response the sanctions were designed to precipitate – certainly not with the required alacrity.
This stark disconnect between cause and effect was dramatically illustrated in the case of Iraq, where unspeakable hardships wrought by sanctions on the civilian population, for over a decade, failed to make Saddam Hussein bow to international demands.
Inefficacy of sanctions
The futility of inflicting punishment on people who can neither make the requisite decision for terminating the punishment, nor sway those who can, was succinctly conveyed in a 2011 Strategic Research Project conducted at the US Army War College (USAWC) on the “Efficacy of Economic Sanctions”: “After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the UNSC passed Resolution 661, imposing the most comprehensive sanctions ever implemented by the UN.... Resolution 661 created a humanitarian crisis in Iraq in the late 1990s.”
Yet, as the Strategic Research Project noted, despite the comprehensiveness of the sanctions and the widespread human suffering they caused, the sanctions did not succeed in forcing Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait, instead forcing the UN to use military force to achieve the resolution’s objectives.
Continuation of sanctions after the First Gulf War failed to achieve full compliance by Iraq of the cease-fire resolution, providing partial justification for the invasion and toppling of the Iraqi government in 2003.
The project goes on to conclude: “Economic sanctions have had minimal effect in dissuading [countries such as] Pakistan, N. Korea and Iran from pursuing and obtaining nuclear weapons,” since their drive to acquire nuclear capability “outweighed any negative costs from sanctions.”
Significantly, it observes that when sanctions are applied to regimes such as in Iraq, these “eventually required reinforcing by military action to finally force compliance.”
Flawed morality of sanctions
It is not only the logic and the efficacy of sanctions that are flawed, but in many ways, their morality. For as we have seen, almost by definition, they target innocent civilians.
When this is applied to extremely authoritarian regimes, it appears little more than mindless injustice, for the victims of the sanctions have little capacity to change the policy for which sanctions were applied. Imposing deepening and prolonged deprivation on them seems senseless and futile.
Perusal of the impact of the effects of sanctions reveals that there is little room for those who advocate sanctions over the use of military force to claim the moral high ground.
For example, the sanctions against Iraq were a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed by the UN. They began on August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, staying largely in force until May 2003.
Although there is considerable dispute as to the exact figures, what is beyond dispute is that the sanctions resulted in death, disease and destitution on an appalling scale.
(As an aside, it is worthy of note that the suffering inflicted by this US-led, UN-endorsed initiative dwarfs that allegedly caused by Israel’s quarantine of Gaza. Moreover, most the participating countries were not directly threatened by the Iraqi regime, neither in terms of their national security, nor in terms of the physical safety of their citizens, in the way Israel and Israelis are threatened by the regime in Gaza.)
Death, disease and destitution
The estimates of sanction-related deaths in Iraq have been put as high as one million, up to 500,000 of them children. There was a dramatic and documented spike in infant mortality, more than doubling (from 47 to 108 per 1,000 live births) in the southern and central areas of the country.
Water-borne diseases were rampant because of the prohibition on importation of chlorine and equipment for sewage treatment plants. Malnutrition was rife –particularly among children, afflicting up to one-third of under-five year olds.
But medical ailments were not the only problem. There was a surge in social ills as well. Literacy rates plummeted – particularly among women. In the 1980s, Iraq had been declared “illiteracy-free” by UNESCO.
Today, it has one of the highest levels of illiteracy in the region. The per capita income in Iraq dropped from $3,510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996, heavily influenced by the rapid devaluation of the Iraqi dinar. In late 1989, one dinar was valued at over $3 (although the black-market rate was considerably lower). Six years later, $1 was valued at 3,000 dinars! As poverty became more pervasive, crime and corruption proliferated and Iraqi society became increasing fractured and dysfunctional.
Yet despite all this widespread misery and suffering of the populace, Saddam remained defiant and compliance could only be achieved by force.
Tyrants’ ‘tolerance’ for tribulation
Tyrants have typically shown remarkably high tolerance for the tribulations of others.
North Korea is an archetypical case in point. Despite decades of sanctions that imposed crippling penury, famine and starvation on millions of its citizens, it has failed to bow to Western demands, either with regard to human rights or nuclear ambitions. It comprises an edifying and sobering example for Israel.
Clearly the North Korean outcome, in which the acquisition of weaponized nuclear capability was not prevented, is unacceptable for Israel. For it, the specter of a nuclearized theocratic tyranny in Tehran has existential significance, far beyond any that a nuclearized Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has for the US or its allies.
Accordingly, the elements of Pyongyang’s resilience and resistance to sanctions are a matter of acute relevance to Israel. The observations of the previously cited USAWC study are significant: “N. Korea presents an extremely difficult challenge for the US.
Kim Jong-II realizes that the US and the world will not resort to military force. As long as enforcement of the sanctions can be circumvented through China and other third-parties, Kim Jong-II [today Kim Jong- Un] has no incentive to change his path.”
The message is clear: In the absence of a credible military threat, sanctions can – and typically are – circumvented while the targeted regime pursues its malevolent goals.
Circumventing sanctions while centrifuges spin
A paper, “Sanctions as Grand Strategy,” published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (2011), drew a grim parallel between the sources of resilience of the Iranian and North Korean regimes: “... third-party support for Pyongyang and Tehran has had the biggest impact in terms of helping these countries to circumvent the worst effects of sanctions, particularly those targeting trade.”
Likewise, the USAWC study warns, “Target nations often find it easy to circumvent sanctions by changing habits, finding alternate sources on the black market, or directing the effects away from the regime and down on the populace.”
Few countries are better endowed to “circumvent” than Iran. It shares a land border of almost 6,000 km. with seven neighbors (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan) and has direct maritime access to Russia and Kazakhstan (via the Caspian Sea) and to numerous counties on the Arabian peninsula across the Persian Gulf. Indeed, a “circumventer’s paradise.”
Moreover, Iran’s economy is vastly larger than North Korea’s, with a GDP over 20 times higher, and roughly triple its GDP per capita. Accordingly, there is much leeway left before sanctions inflict the kind of economic pain that Pyongyang (and pre-2003 Baghdad) endured – or allowed its people to endure – without submitting to the will of the sanction-imposers.
Accordingly, Iran’s capacity to circumvent sanctions and to compensate for their impact should not be underestimated, especially over time. Reports of the impending collapse of the Iranian economy, the ravages of its devaluing currency and the spread of civil unrest should be regarded with caution. For even if true, these developments may have little – or at best, a long-delayed – impact on decision-making echelons in Tehran.
This point is often lost on proponents of sanctions/opponents of military force, such as The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and The Atlantic’s J.J. Goldberg, who seem to have difficulty distinguishing between wreaking harm on the Iranian public and getting the ayatollahs to stop the centrifuges.
In an inane blog post (June 20) titled “Mr. Netanyahu, Meet Mr. Kristof,” Goldberg quotes Kristof’s opinion piece (June 16), which conveys the anger and anguish some Iranian manufacturers and traders are feeling, expressing optimistic hope that these might be the harbingers of regime change.
What he studiously neglects to mention is that Kristof also describes the abundant availability of up-to-date computers, tablets and smartphones, remarking that despite everything “Iran is a relatively rich and sophisticated country.”
More significantly, Goldberg omits to mention how Iranian businessmen are finding ways to sidestep sanctions – and hence delay or attenuate their effects – such as the use of the Hawala system (an informal Islamic network for financial transfers) in response to the ban on Iran using the SWIFT facility.
Too early, too early... Oops! Too late
For Israel the issue of time is crucial to its operational decision-making, and the question of when sanctions might succeed is no less pivotal than if they succeed. Thus underestimating Iran’s resilience is an unacceptable risk for Israel.
For in a world of inherent uncertainty, where – by definition – a decision-maker can never know if he/she can get his/her timing exactly right, it would be far better to launch an attack a little too early, than a little too late. As Middle East Forum fellow Asaf Romirowsky recently remarked: “Israel cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding Iran because ‘do-overs’ are not an option.”
For those who warn of Iranian reprisals if force is used, it should be underscored that there is little reason to believe that the negative repercussions of an attack, launched exactly at the last minute, are likely to be significantly different from those of one launched a little too early.
Some have warned that a military strike would galvanize the population behind the regime. This leaves one to wonder why suffering induced by military action, resulting from regime-recalcitrance, would induce the population to unite in support of the leaders, while sufferings induced by prolonged sanctions would not.
Of course it is difficult to predict with any certainty, but there is a respectable body of scholarly opinion which holds that “economic attacks may rally a beleaguered population to its despot, who points to the United States as the source of its lowered living standards rather than his failed statist policies.”
So who knows?
Avoid use of force
The only way to avoid the use of military force is to convince the theocrats of Tehran they face an adversary with unwavering resolve to use it.
That is not jingoistic saber rattling – it is just the way of the world.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.