Having studied more than 200 episodes of economic sanctions in the 20th Century, people often ask me to identify the greatest sanctions success story that my colleagues and I uncovered. My answer is usually along the lines of, hmmm, well, I can think of lots of spectacular sanctions failures—for example the 50-year long embargo against Castro’s Cuba. But there are no equally spectacular successes. There were times when sanctions were decisive in achieving foreign policy goals, but most often it was when those goals were relatively modest. There are exactly zero examples of cases that are at all comparable to the situation with Iran—where sanctions achieved the sort of unconditional surrender that people favoring harsher measures want to see.
That doesn’t mean that sanctions can’t contribute to a positive outcome in Iran, it’s just that it’s likely to be messier and more difficult than the United States and its allies would like—sort of like the unfulfilled hopes for last weekend’s Geneva talks. Across all 204 episodes and 170 case studies analyzed, there were only three cases deemed fully successful when the issues at stake involved core national interests on both sides. And in all three of those cases, the target of the sanctions was heavily dependent, both economically and for security guarantees, on the sanctioning country. The first case was in the wake of World War II when the United States threatened to withdraw economic and other support if the Netherlands continued to deny independence to Indonesia. The second and third occurred in the 1970s when both Korea and Taiwan toyed with the idea of developing nuclear weapons capabilities and were dissuaded by American pressure, including the threat of economic sanctions.
None of those cases bears any resemblance to the situation that the United States and its allies face with Iran today. As I explained in this Foreign Affairs essay last week, the economic sanctions against Iran are already imposing serious economic costs on the country and tightening sanctions further is likely to create more problems than it solves. Avoiding negotiations and waiting for sanctions to force Iran to raise a white flag would delay a resolution and increase the humanitarian impact on ordinary citizens in Iran. That, in turn, will erode the international political support needed to maintain and effectively enforce sanctions.
For now, the primary leverage of sanctions comes from the carrot of offering to suspend some of them. The sanctions stick will still be there, but it’s time for it to take a supporting role for a while.