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.