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Our Sanctions Addiction

President Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com, European External Action Service/Flickr

Iran’s Foreign Minister recently criticized the U.S. for its “addiction” to sanctions:

“I believe there is a disease in the United States and that is the addiction to sanctions,” he told CNN, adding that, “Even during the Obama administration the United States put more emphasis on keeping the sanctions it had not lifted rather than implementing its obligation on the sanctions it lifted.”

Zarif has his own reasons for saying this, but the addiction he describes is all too real. Our government is quick to apply sanctions and extremely reluctant to lift them. Once a government is targeted with sanctions on one issue, it becomes even easier to apply additional sanctions for other reasons. Multiple overlapping sets of sanctions give the targeted government little reason to cooperate. In Iran’s case, they made significant concessions on the nuclear issue in the expectation of receiving sanctions relief. Contrary to the lies of nuclear deal opponents, Iran made the bulk of its concessions up front in exchange for the promise of relief later. That relief was very slow in coming to the extent that it came at all. Now Trump has not only gone back on the promise of sanctions relief, but he is going out of his way to use U.S. sanctions to force other governments to wage economic war on Iran as well.

Iran is still in compliance with the deal even after the U.S. broke its promises, and now the U.S. is piling on sanctions simply for the sake of inflicting economic harm. Other governments understandably consider U.S. secondary sanctions on foreign firms to be illegal and unacceptable, and it is only a matter of time before many more states look for ways to get around them. The more that our government abuses sanctions, the more likely it is that other states will create mechanisms to shield themselves and their companies from them.

U.S. abuse of sanctions reminds me of another part of Bloomberg’s recent editorial on the nuclear deal. The editors write:

But a deepening economic crisis could yet force a change of heart in Tehran. A second round of U.S. sanctions, targeting oil exports and due in November, could also concentrate minds. For his part, Trump has said he’s open to meeting with Iran’s leaders “whenever they want to.” He might welcome a second act to his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The Iranians might reflect on the fact that Kim lost nothing from that encounter.

All this is, admittedly, slim hope on which to base a long, tortured process of negotiation. But it’s better than the false hope that Europe’s leaders are currently clinging to.

If additional sanctions “concentrate minds” in Tehran, what is likely to happen? Prior to the nuclear deal, increasing sanctions spurred Iran to build tens of thousands of centrifuges and advance their nuclear program significantly. Sanctions addicts are under the mistaken impression that they can force the targeted state to change its behavior, but in practice this just causes them to do more of what the U.S. doesn’t want to give them additional leverage. In order for sanctions to have any chance of being effective, the other government has to believe that there is way to get the sanctions lifted permanently. Iran’s leaders no longer believe that because Trump shredded our government’s credibility by reneging on the deal. Now that the U.S. has shown that its promises of sanctions relief are meaningless, it can impose any number of sanctions for as long as it wants and all it will do is provoke Iran into doing exactly what our government opposes.

If the Trump administration succeeds in completely blowing up the deal, Iran won’t have to abide by its restrictions any longer. In the worst-case scenario, the U.S. pressure campaign could convince Iran’s government to leave the NPT. In its vain and destructive attempt to force Iran to make deeper concessions, the Trump administration could very easily repeat the Bush administration’s North Korea blunder. Sanctions addicts don’t think that abusing sanctions can have adverse and undesirable consequences, but in this case they could end up producing a much worse outcome to the detriment of all concerned.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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