Foreign policy

Why America’s sanctions on Russia and Iran are unlikely to work

There are three key elements to making sanctions effective: allies, a willingness to enforce them and incentives to bargain.

Sanctions are much in demand these days as a tool of American foreign policy.

Members of Congress want tough new sanctions against Russia for its interference in American elections. Sanctions will remain in place against North Korea, the White House says, until Pyongyang shows progress toward denuclearisation. After tearing up the Iran nuclear accord, the Trump administration restored sanctions against Tehran in an effort to get a better deal on restricting its weapons and a change in its behavior. And even NATO ally Turkey faces sanctions for imprisoning several US citizens and employees of its diplomatic mission.

Policymakers claim that sanctions are an effective means of achieving policy goals, but is that true? Are new measures against Moscow and Tehran likely to be successful?

Research on sanctions by myself and others has shown that they can sometimes be effective. But there are three key elements: allies, a willingness to enforce them and incentives to bargain. The absence of all three means they probably won’t work with Russia and Iran.

One reason new sanctions against Iran won’t be effective is that US allies, such as the EU, oppose them. Photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
One reason new sanctions against Iran won’t be effective is that US allies, such as the EU, oppose them. Photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Unilateral sanctions rarely work

Allies supporting and reinforcing sanctions are usually pivotal to making them stick.

Unilateral sanctions such as the proposed measures against Russia and Iran are seldom successful. Although the European Union has placed sanctions on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine, the latest legislative measures proposed in Congress would be unilateral.

In an increasingly globalised world, unilateral sanctions face huge obstacles – even when imposed by the largest economy. A landmark study published in the 1990s by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that unilateral US sanctions achieved their foreign policy goals only 13% of the time.

The rare instances when unilateral sanctions work involve countries that have extensive trade relations with the US, clearly not the case with Russia or Iran. Russia is low on the list of US trading partners, and Iran has had virtually no economic or commercial relations with the US Neither country is dependent on US trade or likely to submit to American economic pressure.

In addition, when a country faces sanctions, it can often seek commercial ties elsewhere. This was the case with Cuba. When the US imposed sanctions on its former trading partner after Fidel Castro came to power, Havana turned to Moscow for help and became a part of the communist bloc.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has diversified Iran’s economy. Photo credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has diversified Iran’s economy. Photo credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Iran, for its part, has diversified its economy in the face of sanctions from the US and other Western countries, shifting trade to the East and increasingly selling oil and buying goods in China, India and other Asian countries.

Washington is responding to Tehran’s circumvention strategy by threatening to impose secondary sanctions against foreign companies that trade with Iran, barring them from doing business in the US Extraterritorial sanctions such as these are opposed by other countries as a violation of international law.

European nations especially disagree with this approach and have vowed to maintain trading relations with Iran despite secondary sanctions. Russia and China also oppose the new US policy.

Willingness to follow through

This raises a second factor that influences whether sanctions work: Is the country issuing the sanctions willing and able to assure compliance with those measures?

The prospect of losing Iran’s two million barrels of oil a day is already roiling global markets. To calm investors, the US State Department quietly announced in early July that Washington would allow countries like China, India and Turkey to reduce oil imports from Iran “on a case-by-case” basis, signaling the US will allow some states to maintain imports, thus limiting the impact of the sanctions.

In other words, the desire to mitigate the potential impact of new sanctions on global financial markets may outweigh the goals of imposing them in the first place.

A similar problem of weak compliance is affecting continued UN sanctions against North Korea. In the wake of the Trump-Kim summit and the president’s claim that Pyongyang is no longer a nuclear threat, China and Russia have shown reluctance to continue enforcing sanctions. They recently blocked an effort within the UN Security Council to condemn North Korean oil smuggling.

If the US and major allies are unable or unwilling to pay the price of sanctions enforcement, effectiveness diminishes.

Coercion and compliance

A third factor affecting success is the need to combine sanctions with diplomatic bargaining.

My research with George Lopez, a professor emeritus of peace studies, shows that sanctions work best within a bargaining framework in which the imposition of coercive measures is combined with incentives for compliance.

The offer to lift sanctions can be an effective bargaining chip for persuading the targeted regime to accept compromise and alter its policies. This was the case in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, when the offer to lift sanctions served as an inducement for Serbia to end its aggressive policies and accept a political settlement.

The irony in the case of Iran is that precisely this form of sanctions-based diplomacy was successful in achieving the 2015 nuclear deal. Rigorous US, UN and European Union sanctions were combined with an offer to lift them if Iran complied with demands to restrict its nuclear program and accept intrusive inspections. The International Atomic Energy Commission verified on 10 separate occasions from 2016 through the early part of 2018 that Iran kept its side of the bargain, and sanctions were removed.

The lonely road

For all these reasons, I believe the new US policy of reimposing unilateral sanctions abandons a multilateral approach that was working in favor of a unilateral policy that has little chance of success.

The US and EU sanctions on Russia for its policies in Ukraine may have some continuing effect, but the new measures under consideration in Congress are unlikely to have a major impact.

Policymakers may talk tough about threatening sanctions, but their policies are weak if they are unilateral and costly to implement. Sanctions work best when they are part of a multilateral diplomatic effort – like the Obama administration took on Iran – in which the offer to lift sanctions is used as an incentive to achieve a negotiated settlement.

The Trump administration may think that it can go it alone in foreign policy, but on sanctions, as on nonproliferation and other policies, multilateral cooperation is often the key to success.

This article was updated to include new information about sanctions against Iran.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.