The Effectiveness of Sanctions and Iran’s Nuclear Program


With Iran and the United States seemingly on the brink of war, it would be justified to examine both country’s viewpoints and intentions to gain a greater understanding of this international relations dilemma. While the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif affirms that his country would never pursue a nuclear weapon since Islam prevents the country in doing so, many in Washington are not convinced. US President Donald Trump remains certain that Iran’s nuclear program represents a threat to international security and peace, with his administration opting to impose sanctions this past year. However, with all of the controversy surrounding this international situation an important question should be asked: Are sanctions an effective tool in order to make Iran comply with the demands of the international community?

Guest blog by Bo Weterings

In 1970, Iran joined as a signatory party the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with the country agreeing to halt the development of nuclear energy for nuclear weapons. Further, it agreed with the verification of compliance by the safeguard system, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, many in the international community feel that Iran’s actions and policies regarding its nuclear program during the 2000s made its intentions questionable. This is due to an incident in 2002, where even though Iran seemed to be willing to commit to international norms, suspicion towards its nuclear plans was boosted through the discovery of undeclared nuclear facilities under construction.

By the United States withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, the glimpse of hope for a world without nuclear weapons vanished, and this led to an intensified and poisonous relationship between Iran and the United States. According to President Trump, the decision to exit the Nuclear Deal in 2018 was that Iran has continued to build a nuclear program. However, this statement is given without providing any evidence and this makes it justifiable to call their liaison nothing more than a “psychological war”. Additionally, by examining past events to contemporary international politics, some argue that the Iranian government was simply trying to accumulate a nuclear arsenal so as to not be confronted with international actors threatening its survival. In this case, imposing sanctions or a military intervention would perhaps not be an effective option. While Trump has abstained from possible military strikes or use of force against Iran, sanctions are clearly the primary foreign policy instrument used to change Iran’s policy.

Increasingly, it appears that the United States has a different stance than many of its European counterparts. This divide was demonstrated by Iran’s attempt to gather diplomats for a dialogue concerning the United States’ decision on the Nuclear Agreement. The EU-3 lobby (Britain, France and Germany) was able to do little to help ensure the United States remained in the agreement. In fact, the withdrawal from the agreement is in some European capitals seen as a “slap in the face of allies”. Europeans diplomats wanted to ensure that Iran received the economic benefits it was promised, as Washington desired to make Iran economically weak by imposing more sanctions.

When looking to the research done in international politics surrounding sanctions, different views have been presented. Lektzian and Regan (2016) have argued that sanctions in isolation are ineffective and that decision-makers should opt to combine it with military intervention. Contrarily to this, Bolks and Al-Sowayel (2000) argue that military intervention is too costly and that sanctions are, for that reason, a preferred and effective option. In the end we are left asking what factors dictate effectiveness of sanctions? When researching this topic, different factors such as regime type and economic dependency were examined. The difference between a democratic and authoritarian regime is the manner in which the harm of sanctions results in political liability. Due to its political structure, the regime type of the target can serve as a predictive indicator as to how the sanctions will be interpreted. In democratic regimes, the political liability involves weighed heavily on the government’s leadership, with the fear of being removed from office. Conversely, in authoritarian regimes, there is not a real concern with political liability, neither are there competitive positions, nor a fear of being removed from office. Past cases such as Iraq have proven that nuclear proliferation is a challenging area for the application of sanctions. It has also showed that the target’s regime type and economy are interrelated factors. It is argued that sanctions can affect the wealth of the target to the extent that its regime is forced to change its foreign policy behaviour. As Galtung (1967) states, the target will be more vulnerable towards the imposed sanctions once its economy is contingent on one product and once this exportation of the product and importation of others depends on only one trade-partner. In the case of imposing sanctions on Iran, the country’s economy and large oil reserves are an essential factor in determining the effectiveness of sanctions. Imposing sanctions will bring economic risks on a domestic and international level. The fact that Iran is an important exporter of oil makes it difficult for senders who rely on this commodity to impose sanctions on Iran due to its economic dependency and creating a major impact on the effectiveness and willingness to implement.

Taking into account Iran’s authoritarian regime, its economic dependency and continuation of exporting oil to the senders, it is clear that the sanctions imposed by the United Nations in the period of 2006-2010 did not pressure Iran in changing its policy. As some studies have indicated, Iran’s nuclear policy could be referred as an elite consensus in which the government was able to continue with its policies because it did not fear removal. This period of time and its circumstances exemplify the idea that for sanctions to be effective either the central government or the ones whose support is crucial for the regime to remain in power should be targeted. In this case, the public was mostly affected rather than the regime. For this reason, the imposed sanctions by the European Union and the United States in the period of 2011-2012 proved to be a different story altogether, by Iran demonstrating to be vulnerable towards the imposed sanctions. Although it did also not achieve its goal in making Iran halt its nuclear activities, it did create a bigger impact on its regime.

Concerning the most recent imposed sanctions on Iran, the country warned the international community that it would ignore the enrichment limits of 3.67 percent and maximum of 300 kilograms on low-enriched uranium and, thus, rejects the Iran Nuclear Deal’s agreement. The question remains: will sanctions work? The target does determine the effectiveness of sanctions as seen with the UN sanctions on Iran in the period of 2006-2010, however, so did the sender of imposed sanctions on Iran, verifiable in the period of 2011-2012. In the most recent case, it is noticeable that the United States has a crucial influence on Iran and its policy, however, uncertainty is even more noticeable when considering Iran’s plans for the future. The political and controversial approach towards the effectiveness of sanctions still remains pertinent in international politics. However, what is certain is that, with the current situation between Iran and the United States, sanctions should be reconsidered and the window of diplomacy must be reopened.

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