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My obligatory post about the Iran sanctions

I'm behind the curve on this, but as someone who's written a bit on sanctions I feel the need to comment on the latest round of UN sanctions applied against Iran

At FP, Christopher Wall and Kori Schake effectively douse any enthusiasm optimists like Gideon Rachman might have had about the sanctions working in an of themselves.  One could argue that the true assessment depends on how much and how effectively the United States and European Union are able to leverage the sanctions resolution language into effecive action against the Iranian Central Bank and other financial entities.  That said, David Sanger's NYT story suggests the gloom that pervades this foreign policy problem:   

So what, exactly, does President Obama plan to do if, as everyone expects, these sanctions fail, just as the previous three did?

There is a Plan B — actually, a Plan B, C, and D — parts of which are already unfolding across the Persian Gulf. The administration does not talk about them much, at least publicly, but they include old-style military containment and an operation known informally at the C.I.A. as the Braindrain Project to lure away Iran’s nuclear talent. By all accounts, Mr. Obama has ramped up a Bush-era covert program to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and he has made quiet diplomatic use of Israel’s lurking threat to take military action if diplomacy and pressure fail.

But ask the designers and executors of these programs what they all add up to, and the answer inevitably boils down to “not enough.” Taken together, officials say, they may slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, which has already run into far greater technical slowdowns than anyone expected. If the pressure builds, Iran might be driven to the negotiating table, which it has avoided since Mr. Obama came to office offering “engagement.”

But even Mr. Obama, in his more-in-sadness-than-anger description on Wednesday of why diplomacy has so far yielded nothing, conceded “we know that the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight” and went on to describe how instead the sanctions would create “growing costs.”

So no, this ain't going to accomplish much.  One thing I would like this episode to do is force a reconsideration of the whole idea of "smart sanctions."  I've been reviewing the literature on this subject, and further study is clearly needed.  Nevertheless, the evidence to date suggests that smart sanctions are no better at generating concessions from the target state.  In many ways they are worse. 

The comparative advantage of smart sanctions is that they appear to solve several political problems for sender countries.  Smart sanctions really do reduce the suffering by civilian populations.  Because they are billed as minimizing humanitarian and human rights concerns, they receive only muted criticism from global civil society.  Because they do not impede significant trade flows, smart sanctions can be imposed indefinitely with minimal cost.  They clearly solve the political problem of "doing something" in the face of target state transgressions.  What they don't do is solve the policy problem of coercing the target state into changing its policies. 

The comparative disadvantage of smart sanctions is their ability to lull policymakers into believing that they're doing something when they're not.   Now, to be fair, sometimes that's the idea -- maybe policymakers don't want to take more aggressive or risky action against a target state.  In that situation, smart sanctions are perfect.  My concern, however, is that policymakers believe that another multilateral round of smart sanctions will actually force the Iranians to do what the rest of the world wants it to do -- because it won't.  Short of comprehensive sanctions, nothing in the economic statecraft policy tool kit will work. 

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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