WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since the end of World War I, economic sanctions were put into place as prevalent tools in international relations and diplomacy. Governments use economic sanctions for a variety of diplomatic incentives that are intended to serve as a middle ground between persuasion and outright war. Sanctions can be used to pressure governments into complying with international law or to punish governments for actions such as human rights violations, acts of warfare or nuclear proliferation. Now, the question remains; are current U.S. sanctions doing more harm than good?
Are Sanctions Effective Tools of Diplomacy?
Economic U.S. sanctions are used extensively by the U.S. government to pressure countries into compliance with U.S. international policies. Recent “smart” sanctions typically have involved isolating and ceasing trade with key industries in a given country to cause economic strain. The theory behind these sanctions implies that the economic hardships caused by the sanctions will encourage countries to fall in line with the agendas of the sanction-issuing bodies.
However, the reality of sanctions does not live up to the theory behind them. Sanctions are rarely a significant contributing factor in encouraging governments to comply with international law. Additionally, they often harm the wrong demographic. While sanctions are meant to isolate key industries and affect those in higher levels of government and economic power, they often end up affecting the more economically vulnerable members of the population.
U.S. Sanctions in Venezuela and Iran
Two of the major countries that have been targeted by U.S. sanctions are Venezuela and Iran. The recent sanctions against Venezuela have created a huge economic crisis in the country, resulting in 1.9 million citizens fleeing the country and a crippling inflation rate of more than 60 percent. Oil is by far the most important export for the country, but pas negotiations have made it difficult for the U.S. to access Venezuela’s oil reserves. Previous sanctions against Venezuela have targeted key figures in the Maduro regime in an attempt to limit funds for the government, which many countries in the world deem illegitimate.
In 2018, the Trump administration reinstated sanctions on Iran, which had been lifted by the Obama administration in 2016. Past sanctions may have helped to get Iran to the negotiating table in 2016 for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and as a result of the agreement, the Obama administration lifted sanctions against Iran. Since sanctions were lifted in 2016, Iran enjoyed significant economic growth, with many average Iranians benefitting from the brief post-sanctions boom. However, the recent sanctions against Iran oil exports and banking businesses have led to a collapse of the rial and an unfortunate economic downturn.
The Impact of Sanctions on Human Rights
Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela has undergone an enormous humanitarian and economic crisis that plunged the majority of citizens into poverty. U.S. sanctions against Venezuela were made in an attempt to weaken the Maduro regime in response to its human rights abuses.
While ordinary Venezuelans may not feel the direct effect of the sanctions, the tightening effect on the government actually inhibited its ability to provide the already lethargic services that many Venezuelans rely on. Given the limited effectiveness of sanctions in the past, there is no guarantee that this round of sanctions will be successful in moving Maduro out of power. Meanwhile, the humanitarian abuses of the government continue and worsen due with the sanctions.
In Iran, the sanctions are punitive measures against the Iranian government for nuclear proliferation; however, the impact said sanctions will have on Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program remains dubious. Meanwhile, those who are most directly impacted by economic fluctuations are not members of the government but its citizen who are struggling to make ends meet.
Normal Iranians are the ones feeling the pain of recent sanctions; shopkeepers, students, civil servants and small business owners are struggling with high inflation and low purchasing power. The unilateral sanctions have been condemned by U.S. allies in Europe who were a part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limiting Iran’s nuclear program, from which the U.S. pulled out in May 2018.
U.S. Sanctions remain an uncertain method of diplomacy, yet the U.S. only seems to be increasing its use of them. The U.S. government will likely continue to use sanctions as a primary diplomatic tool, even when their effects may have negative effects on everyday citizens while causing little change in government behavior.