America should take caution with maximum pressure Iran sanctions

America should take caution with maximum pressure Iran sanctions
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFive takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong Ousted ambassador describes State Department in 'crisis' in dramatic impeachment testimony MORE’s address at the Heritage Foundation on Monday laid out what was billed as a “new Iran strategy.” It relies heavily on a large set of new U.S. sanctions that promises to force the Iranian regime to be “battling to keep its economy alive.”

Maximum pressure sanctions are the centerpiece of the plan, which includes 12 demands for changed Iranian behavior before any relief occurs. Pompeo also stated clearly that the United States will place secondary sanctions on any nation doing business with Iran. But a critical examination of his assertions in light of the key factors for sanctions success yields a rather poor scoresheet for proposed U.S. actions.

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Sanctions are tools, not strategies. They work best when they are one of a number of diverse economic and diplomatic tools used to achieve a larger strategy of relationship between sanctions imposers and targets. The relationship between the sanctions tools and elements of the strategy must be clear and consistent so that they are fully understood by the target. When sanctions fail, it is often because the wider strategy deteriorates to simply imposing and enforcing sanctions.

The secretary has sketched a simple formula: “We sanction, you give in to all demands.” That is punishment in search of strategic goals which leads only to more sanctions without any diplomacy. We committed this error before, with 12 years of Iraq sanctions that led to a war of choice.

Targeted, multilateral sanctions work best. In general, sanctions achieve compliance from their targets only about one-third of the time. To reach that level of success, sanctions must be narrowly targeted “smart” sanctions aimed at those who guide the wrongdoing.

Comprehensive embargoes aimed at creating a full-scale economic crisis in the country targeted do not yield political concessions. Sanctions with the best chance of success are multilateral, often originating in the United Nations Security Council, with those extended and tightly enforced by the European Union and the United States acting in concert.

The wide range of sanctions contemplated by Pompeo will essentially be the United States going it alone with a scattergun approach that includes spending too many policy chips on sanctioning allies for not sharing our sentiments on 12 demands made of Iran. How the secretary deals with the problem that secondary sanctions have an inevitable negative bounce-back effect on the imposer’s economy is unclear.

Successful sanctions engage targets. To be successful, sanctions must not just enrage, but actually engage the target. Sanctions must provide a framework and diplomatic efforts to produce a desired negotiation. Massive sanctions that isolate and punish only, awaiting how these will lead to the target’s capitulation, never produce the latter. The reason Iran came to the table in 2012 and North Korea has partially in 2018, is because diplomacy and incremental sanctions worked hand in hand. No diplomatic table plan was envisioned by the secretary in his remarks.

A sanctioned population does not take action to change their regime. In his answers to questions after his statement, Pompeo errs seriously in asserting that sanctions will push Iran’s citizens to change their government. Even the most comprehensive sanctions have never toppled an unpopular or repressive government. Sanctions that hit the general population are much more effective against friends and economically interdependent entities than they are against already ostracized enemies.

Moreover, where strong internal opposition to a government exists, sanctions imposed by outsiders often provide national leaders with a substantial “rally around the flag” tool and benefit. From Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein, seemingly unpopular regimes justify further internal repression by blaming the nation’s extreme economic and political situation on the sanctions imposers.

Since this has already occurred in Iran, which was promised sanctions relief by the United States for its signing of the agreement, it will occur again and more strongly if U.S. sanctions severely bite the average Iranian. Thus, the United States may want to reexamine what will be, at best, a set of sanctions actions destined to fail for reasons well known in recent history. This new plan does not pass the test needed for success.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He served on the United Nations Security Council panel of experts for North Korea sanctions and was vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.