Dead-End Road

Rogue states have a pretty convincing track record of ignoring sanctions, so what makes Congress and the White House think they'll work on Iran?

If the latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western powers has proved anything, it's that the raft of sanctions deployed against the Islamic Republic, supposedly the toughest in history, has failed to change the regime's calculus. Two days of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, yielded no deal to end enrichment and no deal to close Fordow, Iran's secretive underground facility near Qom -- just a pledge from both sides to pick up where they left off again in April. Far from caving to Western demands, moreover, Iran's chief negotiator boasted that the Barack Obama administration, in dropping its insistence that Fordow be shuttered, had moved "closer to the Iranian position." Yet on Feb. 27, the day after the talks concluded, U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would further restrict commercial dealings with Iran and punish foreign companies that violate U.S. sanctions.

Almaty was hardly Exhibit A for the efficacy of sanctions, but then again nobody expected it to be; Iran has repeatedly voiced its unwillingness to negotiate under pressure, and on Feb. 24, lawmakers in Tehran even signed a petition urging the negotiators to take a hard line at the talks. "The West must learn that Iran's nuclear train, which moves on the rails of peaceful goals, will never stop," the petition read, according to a state-run news agency. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put it more bluntly in a statement on his website earlier this month: "You are pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."

Nonetheless, a central feature of the Obama administration's Iran strategy has involved turning the screws on Tehran. The question is: why? Unless they are deployed in conjunction with other coercive methods (read: war), economic sanctions have a pretty abysmal track record of altering states' behavior. Examples of failed sanctions regimes abound: The League of Nations couldn't halt Benito Mussolini's conquest of modern-day Ethiopia in the mid-1930s; a crushing financial and trade embargo didn't persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait in 1990; and North Korea just conducted its third nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions. And oh, how's that half-century old embargo of the Castro regime working out?

The truth is that sanctions rarely, if ever, work. In the only quantitative study that's been carried out on sanctions' effectiveness, economists at the Washington-based Peterson Institute found that 75 of the 115 sanctions episodes between 1914 and 1990 failed to achieve their desired effect -- meaning that they succeed only 33 percent of the time. That's a pretty good batting average for a baseball player, but the estimate, it turns out, was probably overly generous. According to political scientist Robert Pape, many of these supposed successes were actually resolved directly or indirectly by force; others exhibit no evidence of concessions by target states. In the end, Pape argues, only five of the 115 cases considered by the Peterson Institute economists can be considered unqualified successes. Economic sanctions, in other words, "have little independent usefulness for pursuit of noneconomic goals."

Even the supposed success stories are problematic on closer inspection, according to Pape. The end of white rule in Rhodesia, often attributed to the success of a U.N. sanctions regime, for example, is actually better explained by increasingly destructive guerrilla warfare. Indeed, the sanctions regime went into effect a full 10 years before the Rhodesian government reached a political settlement with African nationalist parties in 1979. Likewise, multilateral sanctions against South Africa may have actually slowed the pace of reform, according to former President F.W. de Klerk, who presided over the end of the apartheid system. It also "hurt the black population much more than the white population," he said in a 2012 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It didn't help those who it was intended to help; it actually harmed them more than it harmed the intended victims of the sanctions."

The only real examples of successful sanctions regimes, according to Pape, involved minor diplomatic quibbles over political prisoners and, in one case, the relocation of an embassy in Israel. The singular exception is South Korea's decision to forgo purchasing a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant from France in 1976, a move that is difficult to explain without taking into account U.S. and Canadian sanctions.  

So why don't sanctions work? They tend to unite target populations at the same time as they divide the international community. They can also inspire allies of the target country to actively undermine the sanctions regime, as they regularly did during the Cold War. But the single greatest reason that sanctions fail to alter the behavior of rogue states is that they are no match for the rampant ideological or nationalist sentiments they are pitted against. Mussolini's statement in 1935 says it all: "To sanctions of an economic character we will reply with our discipline, with our sobriety, and with our spirit of sacrifice," he declared on the eve of Italy's Oct. 3 invasion of Abyssinia. His sentiment has been echoed by embattled leaders many times since, from North Korea's Kim Jong Il (and now Kim Jong Un) to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who famously declared: "We don't mind having and bearing sanctions banning us from Europe. We are not Europeans."

That's not to say that sanctions don't serve a purpose. They clearly function as important signaling devices, enabling states to express disapproval or commit themselves to international norms. They can also do significant damage to the target state's economy and national defenses, thus rendering it vulnerable to subsequent external military aggression, as was arguably the case for both of the Iraq wars. What sanctions do not typically achieve by themselves, however, is an appreciable shift in the behavior of rogue states.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Iran, which has been subject to unilateral U.S. sanctions of one form or another since 1979, U.N. sanctions since 2006, and European sanctions since 2012. Together, these restrictions have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy -- sending the rial into freefall and reducing the country's oil exports by some 40 percent in the last year alone -- but failed to persuade the regime to abandon its support for terrorist proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah or halt its nuclear program. As Khamenei put it in a televised speech earlier this month, "If the Iranian people had wanted to surrender to the Americans, they would not have carried out a revolution."

There is, of course, one clear exception: In 2003, weeks after U.S. troops had toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran allegedly reached out to the United States through the Swiss ambassador with an offer of comprehensive, direct negotiations aimed at resolving the differences between Washington and Tehran. In return for the lifting of sanctions, recognition of Iran's legitimate right to nuclear technology within the bounds of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the handing over of Iraq-based members of the militant Mujahedine-e-Khalq (MEK), among other things, Iran said it was willing to end its support for terrorist organizations, cooperate with the United States in its war on terror, submit to intrusive international nuclear inspections, and even throw its weight behind an Arab-Israeli peace plan that would involve normalization of relations with the Jewish state. The offer, as Trita Parsi explains in Single Roll of the Dice, was "nothing short of an American wish list of everything that needed to change about Iran."

For reasons that are still contested -- some George W. Bush administration officials say they doubted the authenticity of the document -- the United States chose to ignore the offer, which expired just as soon as U.S. momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan began to stall and the full extent of Iran's influence in post-Saddam Iraq became evident. The Islamic Republic would never again express that level of willingness to bend to Western demands. Without the fear of U.S. forces rolling into Tehran and repeating what they did in Baghdad, the Iranians have felt free to flout the international community, even as it ratchets up the severity of the sanctions. As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly said in 2010, "There will be no war against Iran... there are rational men in the United States that who do not support taking such a step.

Threatening tougher sanctions makes for good politics. It's a way to say, "See, we're doing something." But it's almost certainly destined to fail. So maybe it's time to start calling sanctions what they are: an effective (though expensive) way to name and shame states that flout international norms, but an unrealistic strategy for getting them to fall into line. If the Obama administration is serious about preventing Iran from going nuclear (or achieving threshold capacity), it's going to have to think of something else -- and fast. Every day the United States spends tightening the screws is another day that Iran's centrifuges are spinning toward a bomb. 



How to Win a Cyberwar with China

It's time for the Obama administration to start playing offense, or it might soon have a real war on its hands.

The Internet is now a battlefield. China is not only militarizing cyberspace -- it is also deploying its cyberwarriors against the United States and other countries to conduct corporate espionage, hack think tanks, and engage in retaliatory harassment of news organizations.

These attacks are another dimension of the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China -- a competition playing out in the waters of the East and South China seas, in Iran and Syria, across the Taiwan Strait, and in outer space. With a number of recent high-profile attacks in cyberspace traced to the Chinese government, the cybercompetition seems particularly pressing. It is time for Washington to develop a clear, concerted strategy to deter cyberwar, theft of intellectual property, espionage, and digital harassment. Simply put, the United States must make China pay for conducting these activities, in addition to defending cybernetworks and critical infrastructure such as power stations and cell towers. The U.S. government needs to go on the offensive and enact a set of diplomatic, security, and legal measures designed to impose serious costs on China for its flagrant violations of the law and to deter a conflict in the cybersphere.

Fashioning an adequate response to this challenge requires understanding that China places clear value on the cyber military capability. During the wars of the last two decades, China was terrified by the U.S. military's joint, highly networked capabilities. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) began paying attention to the role of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets in the conduct of war. But the PLA also concluded that the seeds of weakness were planted within this new way of war that allowed the United States to find, fix, and kill targets quickly and precisely -- an overdependence on information networks.

Consider what might happen in a broader U.S.-China conflict. The PLA could conduct major efforts to disable critical U.S. military information systems (it already demonstrates these capabilities for purposes of deterrence). Even more ominously, PLA cyberwarriors could turn their attention to strategic attacks on critical infrastructure in America. This may be a highly risky option, but the PLA may view cyber-escalation as justified if, for example, the United States struck military targets on Chinese soil.

China is, of course, using attacks in cyberspace to achieve other strategic goals as well, from stealing trade secrets to advance its wish for a more innovative economy to harassing organizations and individuals who criticize its officials or policies.

Barack Obama's administration has begun to fight back. On Feb. 20, the White House announced enhanced efforts to fight the theft of American trade secrets through several initiatives: building a program of cooperative diplomacy with like-minded nations to press leaders of "countries of concern," enhancing domestic investigation and prosecution of theft, promoting intelligence sharing, and improving current legislation that would enable these initiatives. These largely defensive measures are important but should be paired with more initiatives that start to play offense.

Offensive measures may be gaining some steam. The U.S. Justice Department, in creating the National Security Cyber Specialists' Network (NSCS) last year, recognizes the need for such an approach. The NSCS -- consisting of almost 100 prosecutors from U.S. attorneys' offices working in partnership with cyber-experts from the Justice Department's National Security Division and the Criminal Division's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section -- is tasked with "exploring investigations and prosecutions as viable options for deterrence and disruption" of cyberattacks, including indictments of governments or individuals working on the government's behalf. It's a good first step, but Congress could also consider passing laws forbidding individuals and entities from doing business in the United States if there is clear evidence of involvement in cyberattacks.

Congress could also create a cyberattack exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which currently precludes civil suits against a foreign government or entity acting on its behalf in the cyber-realm. There is precedent: In the case of terrorism, Congress enacted an exception to immunity for states and their agents that sponsor terrorism, allowing individuals to sue them.

Enterprising companies and intelligence personnel are already able to trace attacks with an increasing degree of accuracy. For example, the U.S. security company Mandiant traced numerous incidents going back several years to the Shanghai-based Unit 61398 of the PLA, which was first identified publicly by the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.

Scholars Jeremy and Ariel Rabkin have identified another way to initiate nongovernmental legal action: rekindling the 19th-century legal practice of issuing "letters of marque" -- the act of commissioning privateers to attack enemy ships on behalf of the state -- to selectively and cautiously legitimize retaliation by private U.S. actors against hacking and cyber-espionage. This would allow the U.S. government to effectively employ its own cybermilitia. Creating new laws or using current ones would force the Chinese government and the entities that support its cyberstrategy to consider the reputational and financial costs of their actions. Of course, if the United States retaliates by committing similar acts of harassment and hacking, it risks Chinese legal action. But America has a key advantage in that its legal system is respected and trusted; China's is not.

Diplomatic action should bolster these efforts. The Obama administration's suggestions for pressuring China and other countries are a good start, but U.S. diplomacy must be tougher. In presenting Chinese leaders with overwhelming evidence of cyber-misdeeds (but without giving away too many details), Washington should communicate how it could respond. To control escalation, the administration should explain what it views as proportionate reprisals to different kinds of attacks. (For instance, an attack on critical infrastructure that led to deaths would merit a different response than harassment of the New York Times.)

As the administration's report suggests, the United States is not the only victim and should engage in cooperative diplomacy. The United States should set up a center for cyberdefense that would bring together the best minds from allied countries to develop countermeasures and conduct offensive activities. One such center could be Taiwan, as its understanding of Chinese language, culture, business networks, and political landscape make it invaluable in the fight against cyberattacks. Of course, centers could be placed elsewhere and still utilize Taiwan's knowledge, but even the threat of placing a cyberdefense center just across the strait would be very embarrassing for China's leaders, as Taiwan is viewed as a renegade province. The point is not to be gratuitously provocative, but rather to demonstrate that the United States options that China would not favor.

The U.S. military's cyber-efforts presumably already include it own probes, penetrations, and demonstrations of capability. While the leaks claiming the U.S. government's involvement in the Stuxnet operation -- the computer worm that disabled centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear program -- may have damaged U.S. national security, at least China knows that Washington is quite capable of carrying out strategic cyberattacks. To enhance deterrence, the U.S. government needs to demonstrate these sorts of capabilities more regularly, perhaps through cyber-exercises modeled after military exercises. For example, the U.S. military could set up an allied public training exercise in which it conducted cyberattacks against a "Country X" to disable its military infrastructure such as radars, satellites, and computer-based command-and-control systems.

To use the tools at America's disposal in the fight for cybersecurity will require a high degree of interagency coordination, a much-maligned process. But Washington has made all the levers of power work together previously. The successful use of unified legal, law enforcement, financial, intelligence, and military deterrence against the Kim regime of North Korea during a short period of George W. Bush's administration met the strategic goals of imposing serious costs on a dangerous government. China is not North Korea -- it is far more responsible and less totalitarian. But America must target those acting irresponsibly in cyberspace. By taking the offensive, the United States can start to impose, rather than simply incur, costs in this element of strategic competition with China. Sitting by idly, however, presents a much greater likelihood that China's dangerous cyberstrategy could spark a wider conflict.