Op-Ed: U.S. foreign policy is ‘sanctions happy.’ Here’s why it doesn’t work

Flags of Cuba, North Korea and Iran with caution-tape inspired strips of yellow tape saying "sanctions."
(Photo illustration by Parisa Hajizadeh-Amini / Los Angeles Times; Getty images and Unsplash)

If anyone still thought that the United States’ “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran was still working, a drone strike in late July on an Israeli-linked merchant ship in the Indian Ocean should put the lie to that notion. Iranian proxies are accused of carrying out the attack.

A sanctions-happy American foreign policy repeats the same pattern over and over, imposing sanctions on a country we judge profligate and, in turn, impoverishing its people. Yet we expect that those same people will overthrow their offending regime and thank us for our actions. Then we are surprised when it doesn’t happen. As chairman of the National Intelligence Council, I had a ringside seat to this sort of behavior.

Iran is the latest in this long dreary line. The “maximum pressure” sanctions have produced neither regime change nor much visible restraint by Iran when it comes to its other offenses, including its missile program or interventions in the region. The sanctions have given the regime a handy scapegoat for its economic failings.


Before the ayatollahs took power in 1979, and long after, Iranians (especially younger ones) were perhaps the most pro-American people in the greater Middle East. No longer: Now even young Iranians who are no friends of their country’s theocratic regime blame U.S. sanctions for at least part of the country’s economic plight.

Cuba provides another decades-long example. Who knows how the current unrest will play out, but over more than a half century U.S. sanctions were the best thing the Castro regime had going for it. As in Iran, they could be — and were — blamed for anything bad that happened in the country.

More than once in my career, a member of Miami’s Cuban exile community has taken me aside and said a version of this: “Our Cuba policy has failed. Instead, we should have done what we did to Eastern Europe during the Cold War, seduce them with contact and commerce.” The conversation invariably ended with: “Please don’t tell anyone in Miami I said this.”

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When the U.S. has succeeded in encouraging changes in regime or behavior by offending states, those successes have rested on policies far different from sanctions. One example is the aforementioned seduction of Eastern Europe. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, set in motion in 1973, was central to that initiative. What the Soviet Union accepted in the hope of sustaining its control of Eastern Europe, Western Europe used as a means of reducing tensions in the region, increasing economic interchange and improving the humanitarian conditions of communist countries.

It took a generation for the seduction to end in regime change in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, but in retrospect there seems little doubt that a policy that pursued increasing contact played an important role.


For example, West Germany tried to make sure that East Germans could access West German television, but two regions in East Germany remained out of reach. In the mid-1980s, East Germany solved the access problem by installing a cable from West Germany to the Dresden area in the east “in the wishful belief that if East Germans could watch West German television at home they would not feel the need to emigrate,” wrote historian Tony Judt.

In the long, hoary history of efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, the singular success — the Agreed Framework of 1994 that froze the country’s nuclear efforts — depended on carrots, or positive inducements, not sticks in the form of sanctions. The United States agreed to provide oil and build “light-water” power reactors fueled by uranium and cooled with water in exchange for North Korea freezing, and later dismantling, reactors more capable of producing weapons-grade fuel, including one in operation and others under construction.

Implementation of the framework was checkered almost from the start, not least because partisan politics made it hard for the U.S. to deliver on its commitments, but the episode did produce what nothing has before or since — a slowdown in North Korea’s nuclear program. It lasted from 1994 until about 2002.

Before defaulting to sanctions, which often reflect our own temper tantrums, we should consider whether they would bring about a different outcome this time around — in Iran, Cuba, North Korea or elsewhere. Still, sanctions can work.

Their most notable success may be bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. They worked because the international sanctions and boycotts were political as well as economic, and they targeted what white South Africans held dear, not just money but participation in international sports. In contrast, when the United States targets individual Russians or Chinese or Iranians, it is almost always a symbolic gesture, like indicting foreigners who will never be extradited. Symbols matter but concrete results are better.

Albert Einstein is often credited with observing that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He could have been talking about the U.S. sanctions policy. As the U.S. imposes new sanctions on Cuba, we need to move beyond what we hope they will accomplish and ask: What do we expect to gain from them?

Gregory F. Treverton, chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to 2017, is a professor of international relations at USC.