Are sanctions effective?

March 16, 2015

By Richard Nephew


Quite sensibly, sanctions policy decisions are usually framed along the lines of “will this work?” Policymakers of all stripes want to be certain that, if they decide to impose sanctions on an entity, person, or a country, it is worth doing. They want to be sure that they are targeting the right vulnerability or interest. And, they want to know that, by taking action, they are going to advance their agenda.

Naturally, the answers that are reached all depend on how “work” is defined.

For some, “work” has a straightforward meaning: a sanctions decision can be seen as positive if it gets an actor to do something different than what it was doing before the sanction was imposed. For example, if a bank was supporting a terrorist outfit before it was sanctioned and then stops that support thereafter, the sanction can be reasonably said to have worked.

But, for other sanctions regimes, the concept of assessing effectiveness is far more difficult to pin down. Three basic reasons help to explain this: First, most sanctions regimes have far more complicated policy aims in mind than the comparatively simple “to stop a bad actor from engaging in bad acts.” Second, the objectives of sanctions are often not as clear or commonly shared as may be believed. And, third, sanctions are (usually) part of a broader set of tools being employed and it is difficult to assign credit to any one particular element.

Complicated aims

Even if they seem simple at the outset, most sanctions have complicated policy aims in mind. Take, for example, the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its activities in Ukraine over the past year. As described by a Senior Administration Official on March 20, 2014[1],

“...We are responding to the Russian intervention in Ukraine, which has included an illegal referendum in Crimea, an illegitimate annexation of Crimea, and dangerous risk of escalation. And we have been deeply troubled by the positioning of Russian forces in such a way that threatens southern and eastern Ukraine. We've also been deeply concerned over threats to Ukrainian personnel, in Crimea in particular, as well as the treatment of minority populations in Crimea.

... So these are costs that we are imposing for what Russia has done in Crimea, in Ukraine to date. And we will continue to impose additional costs...”

From just this single snippet, six distinct objectives are laid out:

  1. To respond to Russian intervention in Ukraine...;
  2. ...including the illegitimate annexation of Crimea;
  3. To respond to the positioning of Russian forces that threaten southern and eastern Ukraine;
  4. To respond to threats to Ukrainian personnel, in Crimea in particular...;
  5. ...and to the treatment of minority populations in Crimea; and,
  6. To dissuade Russia from taking further negative steps in Ukraine and Crimea.

Each of these objectives may be legitimate, reasonable and justifiable explanations for the decision to impose sanctions. However, the question of whether sanctions are effective in addressing these objectives is greatly complicated by the number and diversity of these objectives. For example, should Russia treat minority populations in Crimea in a more positive way, would the sanctions imposed on this day be proven effective at pushing Russia to accept a different course of action? Or, should Russia no longer claim Crimea and cease intervening in Ukraine, would this be sufficient to reverse the sanctions imposed? In all likelihood, no one would consider sanctions effective if they only address part of the rationale for their imposition. But, the more complicated the rationale is, the more difficult it is to judge whether sanctions were really effective.

Complicating analysis still further is the fact that, as in most sanctions regimes, the single set of actions taken on March 20 were only one step in a longer, larger campaign. This campaign has imposed a cost on the Russian economy, which is heading into a recession. Falling oil prices have played their part but, even before this added dimension, Russia was experiencing the fall-out of economic sanctions as early as the summer of 2014. However, can sanctions be said to have worked in Russia? Sanctions were not intended to cripple the Russian economy but, rather, were intended to push Vladimir Putin to take the off-ramp of escalation into a diplomatic path and to respond to various acts of aggression (as noted above). It is still unclear whether this has been and will be successful.

As time goes on, the difficulty of forming an accurate judgment of what is happening in Russia and to Russia as a result of international sanctions will intensify. A complex mix of economic, political, cultural, and social factors may yet emerge that results in a change in policy by the Russian government. If so, sanctions will have played a part. But, assessing how much and to what end will be increasingly difficult as time and circumstances march on.

Iran presents an excellent example of the problems brought on by time and the confusion of motives that can emerge in a sanctions program. US sanctions on Iran started as a result of the Iranian revolution and hostage-taking at the US Embassy in Tehran. But, over time, they have been relaxed and intensified as US perspectives on Iran changed and evolved, particularly in the 1990s when more evidence of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction were uncovered. As of today, Iran is under sanctions that include nearly every facet of its international economic life and for reasons as diverse as, to name a few, its nuclear program, development of ballistic missile technology, acquisition of items that could contribute to a chemical or biological weapons capability, violations of human rights generically, violations of human rights using information technology, support for terrorism, state sponsorship of terrorism, sanctions evasion, and facilitation of terrorist activities by al Qaeda, which has conducted terrorist attacks against Iran itself. Even assuming that the use of sanctions has an impact on Iranian policy (which Iran itself would challenge), any improvement in Iran’s behavior in one area or another will be difficult to explain with only one sanctions tool or another, given this wide diversity of objectives and sanctions measures.[2]

Confused objectives

Another distinct challenge to measuring sanctions effectiveness is even simpler: confused objectives by those imposing the measures. In the discussion above, we show that, for at least two challenges presently being confronted by international sanctions, the immediate objectives can evolve over time and result in a far more complicated overall sanctions program. However, Iran also serves to demonstrate another barrier to an accurate assessment of sanctions effectiveness: confused objectives.

As difficult as assessing effectiveness of sanctions may prove to be in Russia, the saving grace of that international sanctions regime is that it is focused on one cluster of issues. With Iran, we are now seeing that the previously believed international (and even US domestic) cohesion behind a set of sanctions objectives is more nebulous. For years, US policy focused on managing the many ills of the Iranian government while driving hard to compel Iran to engage in negotiations intended to address fully concerns with its nuclear ambitions. The United States embraced the theory of the “dual track” approach, in which negotiations were the preferred track with the associated “pressure track” intended to compel Iran to engage in these negotiations seriously.

The Obama Administration maintains that this policy has been successful, as Iran is now engaged in negotiations with the United States and the P5+1 partners to find a solution to international concerns with its nuclear program. However, though it can be argued that Iran has not met the standard of engaging in “serious negotiations” thus far with the P5+1, it is now evident that some in Washington had many different objectives in mind for the use of pressure, including: stopping Iran’s support for terrorist groups and dissidents throughout the region; securing the release of detained US citizens in Iran; and, in extreme cases, regime change.

The wisdom of using pressure to achieve other ends in Iran, such as to change the nature of the Iranian government, is beyond the scope of this post. But, what is not is the confusion created in assessing the effectiveness of sanctions when the objectives of sanctions are misunderstood. Even if a reasonable and generally agreeable nuclear deal to be struck between the P5+1 and Tehran, some in Washington would doubtless argue that it is insufficient to dismantle even a portion of the international sanctions regime until progress is made in these other areas. (Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on March 3, while not saying this outright, implied strongly that this should be the approach.) On the other hand, others would argue -- and justify the termination of sanctions against Iran -- that removing the preponderance of sanctions on Iran now is reasonable on the basis of a major problem being addressed.

Of course, this US-centric assessment of sanctions effectiveness in Iran omits an even wider array of opinions about the objective of US pressure. International advocates and critics of US sanctions policy on Iran have long fixated on the confused objectives embodied within it to support their widely divergent views. For international advocates of intensified US pressure, like those within the United States itself, there is often the suggestion that US sanctions efforts are not sufficiently intense so as to change Iran’s overall approach to international affairs or that, with the advantage now fully with the United States in undermining Iran’s economy, restraint appears like weakness. For those opposed to the application of US pressure against Iran, the confused objectives help to underpin a charge that Washington’s motivations are deliberately obscured, either to cloak our real ambition of overthrowing the Iranian government or, more bizarrely, to penalize foreign business with Iran to US firms’ advantage.

In any case, the fact that the objectives of our sanctions against Iran are confused to many audiences does not help in their execution and much less in any assessment of how effective sanctions have and may be.

Mixed toolkit

Last, the effectiveness of sanctions is also hard to distinguish from other policy tools used. With very few exceptions, no foreign policy activity is characterized by the use of only one tool. There is usually a complex mesh of diplomatic, economic, and military tools in play in any foreign policy approach. As such, determining the independent value and effect of sanctions has been a conundrum for international affairs scholars and practitioners over the years, as studies as diverse as Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot and Oegg’s landmark historical survey of economic sanctions (updated most recently in 2009) -- and Robert Pape’s critical review of it in 1997 -- have demonstrated.

For practitioners, assigning credit to one tool or another is largely beside the point: the goal of the policymaker is to induce policy change, not to tally up how. But, there is value in being able to tease out what tool was most effective. First, it can help policymakers prioritize the tools used again in the future and with other cases. Throwing the kitchen sink at a problem can work, but it is not necessarily efficient. Second, understanding what works best can aid in the distribution of resources and work.

And, of course, for those affected as a side effect of the strategy employed by a policymaker, understanding what works best -- and what can be disregarded in the future -- can be ideal for preventing unnecessary problems in the future.

Managing Unintended Consequences

Of course, effectiveness is not the only measure of success for a sanctions regime. Some sanctions actions may be “effective” in preventing a particular bad actor from engaging in another bad act, but are woefully ineffective in correcting the underlying problem. Other sanctions are of sufficient scope that they do prevent the bad act from being repeated, but at costs that are too high (e.g., the Iraq sanctions program in the 1990s) or because they are so broad that they deny all actions, good and bad. Some have even suggested that sanctions can be too effective, in that they may embolden bad actors to continue with their chosen course because they have nothing else to lose.[3] Each of these are unintended consequences of merit when considering whether or not to impose sanctions.

One possible unintended consequence of sanctions that has been overlooked, however, is the impact of applying sanctions against one country with respect to the creation of a sanctions regime against another country. For example, in 2012, the United States created a structure for a secondary boycott on Iranian oil sales, applying pressure on governments to halt purchases of Iranian oil – no matter the price – and to start making reductions in existing purchases. But the move to reduce Iran’s oil sales raised questions as to whether its total daily exports, about 2.4 million barrels per day at the end of 2011 before sanctions were imposed, would eventually be reduced to zero. Concerns were particularly focused on oil-hungry countries in East Asia, which were engaged in a competition for oil resources in the South China Sea.

The sanctions therefore reinforced the position of oil exporters that are not under oil-related sanctions now, such as Russia. Indeed, Russia offers a particularly salient example, as the decline in oil exports caused by sanctions on Iran contributed to reluctance on the part of US partners to consider energy-related sanctions against Russia for its activities in Ukraine that would result in an immediate curtailment of Russian supply. Whether, over time, this perspective will shift with lower oil prices has yet to be seen, but -- for a time, anyway -- the decision to impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports had an impact on the availability of this as a policy tool against Russia.

So, when judging the effectiveness of US sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, we may be able to conclude that they were highly effective in bringing Iran to the negotiating table but at a cost to the Russian sanctions endeavor...and who knows what the ultimate future cost may be or what decisions may be thrust on a future policy-maker as a result.


As with most policy tools, answering the question about whether sanctions are effective has real world implications. If sanctions don’t work, then tremendous hardship -- on both the target and the sanctioner -- are for not. If they do work but come with too much baggage, then perhaps a smarter approach is needed. To some extent, it was for this reason that in the 2000s, the United States started to move to a “smart sanctions” approach that would more concretely tie actions to results. Some have proclaimed that the success of sanctions in forcing Iran to the table are the vindication of “smart sanctions.” Still others -- myself included -- would note that “smart sanctions” didn’t really achieve their desired effect until they began to harm Iran’s economy on a systemic level. Pressure short of that only served as impetus for Iran to find cut-outs and new ways of doing its illicit business. Indeed, if the goal of “smart sanctions” -- as described in the 2015 US National Security Strategy -- is: “to be carefully designed and tailored to achieve clear aims while minimizing any unintended consequences for other economic actors, the global economy and civilian populations,” then any sanction that fails to meet its design criteria would seem to be ineffective as a tool even if effective in its end result.


This views on this post are solely those of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Center on Global Energy Policy.


[1] March 20, 2014, Background Briefing with Senior Administration Officials, available at:

[2] Indeed, it is interesting to note that those who support new sanctions against Iran, despite ongoing nuclear talks, argue that this array of sanctions is insufficient to create leverage on Iran to complete negotiations with the P5+1 but that the concrete threat of more sanctions in the future, embodied in a deadline-based approach, will somehow demonstrate to Iran that we remain serious about the use of sanctions as an instrument.

[3] For example, see Eric Lorber’s piece in Foreign Affairs on September 7, 2014