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.