What Are Sanctions, and Do They Work?

Sanctions have been prominently featured in the news in recent times, especially given international negotiations with Iran regarding economic sanctions and its nuclear program. (As of this writing, a tentative deal was reached to lift those sanctions.) While Iran and Russia represent the most widely publicized current cases of sanctions, there are many other sanctions imposed throughout the world.

What exactly are sanctions, and do they usually have their desired effect?

Sanctions are limitations that one country or a block/coalition of countries put on another country, and occasionally, on specific citizens of that country (usually leaders). Reasons for sanctions can range from retaliatory trade sanctions to attempting to change the behavior of a country (e.g. ending human rights violations) to attempts at regime change.

There are two main types of sanctions:

Asset Freezes/Seizures These prevent assets from a country, or an individual in that country, from being used. They cannot be moved or sold.

Trade Sanctions These include import or export duties on goods, quotas that limit the amount of goods that can be traded between countries and embargoes that prevent various goods and services from being supplied to one country by another. Technology, materials and information sanctions that can be used to deter weapons development (as in the case of Iran) fall into this category.
Individual countries can apply sanctions as the United States did with Cuba, but more often than not, the sanctions are multilateral.

Within the United States, sanctions are generally executed under the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), with some concerns falling under the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) and others falling under the State Department (such as the ITAR weapons restrictions). Searchable lists of current sanctions are available at the OFAC website .

A more user-friendly list of U.S. and European Union (EU) sanctions can be found here. Note the rather impressive lists on Iran and Russia/Ukraine.

Do sanctions work? Sometimes, but the effect is difficult to quantify. Goals of sanctions can sometimes be fuzzy or shifting, and the definition of "work" can change dramatically over the course of a sanction.

A comprehensive study from some time ago, "Economic Sanctions Reconsidered," studied 174 separate cases of 20th-century sanctions over a range of topics and scales, and found that sanctions were partially successful around one-third of the time - not a bad average for a hitter in professional baseball, but fairly dismal for such a disruptive foreign-policy mechanism.

The study found that sanctions work better when the goals are more modest, such as releasing of political prisoners. As tools to enhance or avoid military operations or to change regimes, they fare poorly.

Arguments against sanctions generally focus on the fact that poor citizens suffer more than the leaders of the country who are the effective targets. Broader sanctions, as were levied in Iraq by the United States and United Nations in the Saddam Hussein days, surely caused more harm to the public - estimates of GDP loss went as high as 48% and Saddam was quite effective at transferring the pain to others. Sanctions these days tend to be more focused, and in the case of Iran, have at least brought the country to the negotiating table and to a tentative agreement.

The Russian action in Crimea resulted in a long list of targeted sanctions being imposed by both the United States and the EU, especially within oil- and energy-related fields. Eleven state-owned oil companies and defense firms, as well as banks, were denied access to capital markets and loans, making financing operations difficult.

The Russian economy is expected to contract anywhere from 3-4%, but arguably, the worldwide drop in oil prices takes more of the blame. Unfortunately, these sanctions may backfire as many Russians blame the West for the majority of their problems, leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin with less reason to alter his behavior.

Further, Russia's retaliatory sanctions on Western agricultural and food products have sent prices soaring in Russia, but have also harmed European farmers. Even with relatively targeted sanctions, in this case the people seem to be suffering more than the leadership. You can find people to support either argument: that the sanctions are working or that they aren't.

In summary, there is a wide range of sanctions available and they work to varying degrees. However, it's important to note that sanctions are just a mechanism to effect change. They should not be the expected end result.

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