Sorry, Sanctions Will Not Do

06/17/2008 11:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In seeking ways to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium and clear the air about its nuclear ambitions, adding tougher sanctions to those already in place is often mentioned. For instance, John McCain stated at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference last week that he favors imposing limits on Iranian imports of gasoline and a worldwide campaign to freeze Iranian assets. Barack Obama, speaking before the same body, said that he would pursue a similar policy if Iran remained uncooperative, stating that "If Iran fails to change course... we [will] insist on stronger sanctions in the Security Council." Nancy Pelosi holds that: "Sanctions that are far-reaching and tough demonstrate to Iranian leaders that their behavior is recognized as a threat...."

Most recently, following a joint statement with the Bush administration on intensifying sanctions, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the European Union will freeze the overseas assets of Iran's largest commercial bank; he also stated that if Iran persists in defying existing United Nations resolutions, European leaders would begin considering further sanctions on investments in Iran's oil and natural gas industries.

It's easy to understand why politicians love sanctions. They sound tough. They're more than just talk but less than dreaded acts of war (which surely should only be considered -- if at all -- if all other means have been exhausted). Moreover, there are not many other arrows in the quiver of foreign policy.

But sanctions often do not work; indeed they often backfire, and they have some very undesirable side effects.

The United States isolated Castro's Cuba for four decades, banning trade with and travel to and from the island as well as exerting pressure on other nations to follow the same course. Containment of Cuba failed to grant its people more rights or to introduce democratic reforms. North Korea and Saddam's Iraq are two regimes which were long under sanctions but which persisted for decades.

In contrast, when China was still very much under totalitarian Communist rule in 1972, the United States decided to engage it in commerce, tourism, and more. It is far from a shining democracy, but it has become much more moderate since those days. The same holds true for Vietnam. The fifteen former Soviet Republics have changed even more, including on the political front, largely after the West engaged them instead of trying to isolate them through the use of sanctions.

The comprehensive sanctions imposed by the U.S. and others on Iraq in the 1990s failed to impress Saddam, who made out like a bandit due to the smuggling which various corrupt international players engaged in to circumvent the sanctions. At the same time the sanctions exacted a harsh price from the citizens of Iraq, leading to the deaths of many children, as access to needed supplies were limited.

True, the sanctions that have been imposed against Iran are different, more "graduated and targeted" than those that were imposed against Iraq in the 1990s. In the words of Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy at the Washington Institute, "these are not your grandfather's sanctions." They are designed to exert coercive power only against "those elements of Iranian society specifically engaged in illicit conduct" rather than against the entire society.

But even when sanctions do have a bite, as they seemed to have had in the case of Libya, they take decades to have an effect and required almost universal support. It does not take a degree in rocket science or economics to realize that if the U.S. is imposing sanctions that many other nations are not adhering to, their main effect will be to deflect trade and other forms of business from the U.S. to other nations. Thus, the extensive U.S. sanctions on Iraq in the '90s failed, in part, because many of Iraq's neighbors (and several other nations) did not abide by them.

There is even less support for sanctions on Iran. Iran is laughing all the way to the bank, as the United States-imposed sanctions cost it much less than the extra revenue it is generating due to rising price of oil, and it is swimming in deals with Russia and in investments from China and India.

In short, sanctions may be good politics, but not good foreign policy. The dealings with Iran will have to follow the same path that Clinton followed and -- in its waning days -- that the Bush administration is following in their dealings with North Korea: offering to cease trying to overthrow the regime by the use of force if they will give up their nuclear arms ambitions and cease supporting terrorism. Such negotiations, one should not deny, are propelled forward by keeping all other options on the table, including the military one. And that is where that option best stay.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007) email: