On Target Response

On Target Response and Resolve (The Art of Sanctions – Part 7)

The Art of Sanctions – On Target Response and Resolve:

in chapter 4, I categorized sanctions. I also discussed how to assign value to the pain of sanctions and how to ensure that pain registers as anticipated and desired. In chapter 5, we saw the application of this effort with respect to Iran from 2006 through 2010.

Mouood’s Introduction: The author of the present book (The Art of Sanctions) is Richard Nephew. Richard Nephew was in charge of the sanctions team against Iran during Obama’s second term. He supported the nuclear negotiators in the matter of sanctions in Vienna. Richard Nephew has previously served for ten years as an Iran member of the National Security Council at the White House and as Deputy Secretary of State for Coordination of Sanctions at the State Department. The book is also translated into Persian by the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center (IPRC).

Note: The content of this book is not approved by us and is published solely to familiarize policymakers with the views, approaches, and methods of the designers of sanctions against Iran.

In this chapter, I discuss the response of sanctioned countries, entities, and individuals as a general matter. As I outlined in chapter 1, the degree to which the targeted state intends to persevere with its original activity notwithstanding the imposition of pain by the sanctioner is what we will define as its national “resolve.” A primary component of resolve is how important the subject of sanctions is relative to other national priorities.

First, we must consider how states organize themselves around national priorities. Countries have bands of priorities, in which some things are weighed as more important than others, depending on the national character, history, government structure, societal makeup and needs of the population. Again, although exhaustive research can probably articulate this point with more precision, the inference is logical: more abstract priorities tend to be set aside when issues of national survival are at stake.

For this reason, countries in crisis tend to have national debates, seeking to evaluate whether the situation justifies changes to underlying priorities or if staying the course is best. The United States, for example, has struggled since 9/11 with the conflict between safety and security on the one hand and personal liberties on the other. Other countries have similarly experienced the pull of one priority or another in certain circumstances.

Countries probably value some interests more than others consistently over time. Individuals may change their viewpoints on which interest is most important at any given moment, but systems and governments establish notional—if unwritten—rules for how they prioritize their interests. Territorial integrity, for instance, is a common top-shelf priority for states. It is a reason why most states have standing armies or navies, with infrastructure to support their employment in exigent circumstances. For some states, however, the separation between the importance of territorial integrity and another interest—say, economic performance—may be wider or narrower.

In Europe, members of the European Union’s Schengen Zone have implicitly decided that one element of territorial integrity—controlling transit through national borders—is less important than the economic costs of delayed travel. Several European states have also determined that a common currency is of sufficient value as to sacrifice national control over the currency used in their territories (just as some countries, in accepting the use of the U.S. dollar instead of their own national currencies, have elected to cede control over their monetary policy in order to harvest the benefits of being aligned with the dollar).

Priorities can change over time coincident with broader developments that change previous convictions and beliefs. Priorities can also flip due to internal or external factors. For example, countries in the EU have witnessed the limitations that a common currency places on their ability to use monetary policy to address economic problems since the 2009 Great Recession.

This has even resulted in consideration among some—Greece most prominently—to reverse their previous willingness to cede national control, even if the original rationale for coming together to form the euro remains fully intact.

Just as priorities have national bases and must be considered from within that analytical framework, so too must sanctioners reevaluate their understanding of those priorities to ensure that their understanding remains current. Saddam Hussein’s willingness to sacrifice the interests of his subjects in order to advance his own peculiar notions of national interest is well established.

It is reasonable to assume that no amount of sanctions pain would have been able to overwhelm Saddam’s desire to advance Iraqi national sovereignty, which—as he saw it—was incompatible with intrusive international inspections of suspect military sites. In the end, this extended to a readiness to accept military force employed against him, despite the fact that only twelve years earlier, the same military forces had routed his military, then the world’s fourth largest.

As noted in chapter 2, observers have speculated as to why this is. But the most logical conclusion is that he believed such intrusion would badly puncture his sense of (and perhaps actual) deterrence for regional adversaries and, domestically, potential rivals.

Or he may have simply miscalculated. Either way, his acceptance of invasion before acceptance of uninhibited inspections forms a picture as to his interests and priorities. This picture puts resisting cooperation with the international community well above his interest in preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq, the Iraqi economy, the well-being of the Iraqi population, and Iraq’s standing in the international community.

It is unlikely that Saddam Hussein’s resolve was equal for each factor over time. Far more likely is that he did begin with a preference to observe all of his national priorities, but that with a decade of sanctions, some lost their importance. For example, even though Saddam played games with international inspectors for over ten years, as of 2002, it appears he was prepared to accept at least limited cooperation with the international community, evidenced by the return of UN inspectors to the country in 2002.

Iraq’s readiness to offer limited cooperation to inspectors toward the end of 2002 but failure to extend this cooperation to the full access demanded by the United States, United Kingdom, and their partners suggests that coalition pressure was sufficient to have crossed the “deny limited cooperation” priority threshold but was insufficient to coerce Iraq into offering full cooperation and far from capable of forcing Saddam to voluntarily relinquish power.

Divining priorities starts, naturally, with an understanding of the country itself, as suggested in chapter 4. But identifying a more explicit sense of prioritization to create an effective sanctions regime requires more. Documents and publicly available materials can be helpful, such as the following (which will be examined in further detail later on in this chapter): r Budget allocations

  • Political platforms or manifestos
  • Constitutional requirements
  • Popular views/concerns
  • National strategy documents and speeches

For some countries, however, the picture may be contained in a more complete understanding of the workings of the regime. For example, in North Korea’s case, one could argue that an unstated but central priority for the elites in power is the dominance of the Kim family and the Communist Party.

For Iran, one could identify maintaining the present theocratic government as a significant priority, something that might not be identified by name in any of these documents. But at the same time, expert analysts of a country’s policies, politics, and society can help to identify what those priorities are and how to rank them in the grand scheme of things.

Priorities also have some constituent parts. One could break apart any individual line of national interest to identify specific sub-priorities and shading for them. For example, “territorial integrity” could be defined in terms of control of all borders—as is a priority for the United States—or in more geostrategic terms, as many European countries have established in their willingness to open internal borders while at the same time affirming their participation in NATO and other security-focused organizations.

Likewise, “economy” as a priority can be subject to many differentiations, with priority attached to growth rates, inflation rates, unemployment rates, or even individual economic sectors.

Coercive diplomacy and the strategy of sanctions seek to exploit the multiplicity of interests by pitting one set of interests against another for a country. The bargain being offered to a sanctions target is continued application of pain or its relaxation in response to concessions by the target, with the severity of pain required dependent on the nature of the interest. Or, put another way, the sanctioner is trying to seek the right decision on a choice the target would not have otherwise made.

The key point of sanctions leverage, therefore, lies in targeting accurately the resolve threshold that you wish to crack and developing a usable estimate of how much pain and pressure is required to cross it. For example, one could threaten the territorial integrity of a country—which may be accorded a higher status of resolve and therefore interest—in order to achieve a change of position on a lower resolve threshold item. In other cases, it may be possible to incentivize a change in behavior on a lower-level interest in exchange for benefits for a higher-level interest.

For example, offering economic benefits to a country might encourage it to make changes to its nuclear program, while threatening its territorial integrity could compel it to do the same.

If we assume that resolve is variable based on the interests in question, then it follows that resolve also does not hold to a set level across time. It can and will change depending on circumstances, and of course that is a core objective of sanctions. But some aspects of resolve may not change. For example, it is plausible to conjecture that territorial integrity may be uniformly important over time, but diplomatic reputation might change as pain is applied.

Or one could even suggest that territorial integrity could—in time—become something worth sacrificing in order to preserve economic prosperity, if the sacrifice were comparatively small in exchange with the benefits to be accrued (say, trading an island to keep the peace).

This certainly has been done in the past, as territory was frequently swapped among European powers both before and during the period of colonization; in fact, China’s willingness to cede control of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in the 1800s in response to a military threat is a demonstration of the variable nature of priorities at certain times and in response to certain stimuli.

One would be hard put to imagine the same sort of decision being made by the current government of China or being demanded, for that matter, by the current government of the United Kingdom which, unlike China, has largely maintained a consistent system of government throughout the intervening decades.

Target Response

Responses to sanctions by those targeted can run the gamut but are thought to fall into two broad baskets: sanctions can be accepted and their impacts managed, or sanctions can be rejected and actively resisted.

As far as sanctions “acceptance” is concerned, I do not intend to connote “welcomed.” This chapter (and, indeed, the entire theory of coercive diplomacy) proceeds from the assumption that sanctions-induced pain is something its targets wish to avoid. This is not to say that targets cannot make the best of a bad situation and embrace the consequences of sanctions, possibly to their advantage, as will be examined shortly.

This surely happens and is part of a target’s response to sanctions. But we discount the circumstances—or hypothetical conjectures—in which sanctions target specifically sought or may seek to be subject to sanctions.

As noted in chapter 1, there could be many reasons for such a decision—including to seek an upper hand in internal political disputes or for individual actors to take advantage of their own commercial opportunities under sanctions—but, for purposes of this chapter, we’ll assume that the imposition of sanctions and the pain that comes along with them is not desirable.

Instead, “acceptance” is intended to connote acknowledgment, but with a heavy sigh. Those that fall into this group of sanctions targets do not necessarily change their modus operandi or bend to the will of the sanctioning state. But neither do they attempt to challenge the imposition of sanctions or avoid the consequences that result.

Instead, they adapt themselves to the imposition of sanctions and then identify ways of either profiting from the experience or using it for political gain (either domestically for regime cohesion or internationally to generate sympathy). Venezuela’s reaction to the imposition of U.S. sanctions against seven of its officials in 2015 can be seen as a demonstration of this latter approach, as Venezuela was able to appeal to international partners to rebuff another example of Yankee imperialism and beleaguered Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro even experienced a bump in his polling numbers.1

Rejection and resistance to sanctions is the more traditional, expected response. In this approach, targets instead seek to find ways around the sanctions, either through clandestine smuggling or by establishing economic ties with states, companies, or individuals prepared to court the risk of their own punishment.

This response can also be accompanied by retaliatory sanctions, as when Russia imposed agriculture bans against the EU in 2014 in response to economic sanctions imposed over Russia’s interference in the sovereignty of Ukraine. The overall approach is to try to minimize the negative impact of the sanctions by outflanking them or to seek to level similar pain on the original sanctioner and its interests.

Iran offers another real-life illustration of this hypothetical. In 2009–2010, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the imposition of sanctions on Iran’s import of gasoline and other petroleum products would bring the Iranian government to its knees. Then-representative of Illinois Mark Kirk (a vocal proponent of sanctions against Iran) argued in 2010 that a gasoline quarantine would have such dire consequences that it would force Iran to concede on its nuclear program and other illicit activities.2

A sanction on Iran’s import of gasoline was duly included in CISADA, which—as outlined in the preceding chapter—became law in July 2010. What happened? Rather than Iran collapsing or immediately conceding on any of these various illicit activities, the country instead applied itself to a combination of smuggling and transformation of its existing petrochemical plants for gasoline production to meet its domestic needs. The result has been gasoline that observers have blamed for the increase in environmental pollution in Iran. Still, Iran has managed to keep cars on the road.

The failure in this example was not that of sanctions enforcement per se: Iranian importation of gasoline duly dropped from an annual average of 132,100 barrels per day in 2009 to 39,600 barrels per day in 2011.3 Rather, the failure was in not appreciating the importance that Iran would place on keeping cars on the road and its ability to undertake unconventional means to solve the problems created by sanctions. In other words, Iran felt the pain being inflicted via a gasoline ban as manageable rather than a knock-out blow.

For the ban’s proponents, the failure of this strategy was taken as a sign of Iranian stubbornness (which, to some extent, is probably right) and—worse—ill intent in terms of the nuclear program. But even when concluding that more sanctions pressure was needed, it is important to consider that the failure of the gasoline ban might not have stemmed from Iranian intransigence but instead from the selection of pain its recipient—in the end—was able to reject.

The intention behind both rejection and resistance is to deflect the impact on target decision making. While the pain may still exist, its psychological impact may therefore be neutered. Resolve is, after all, a function of complex psychological and physically tangible variable interactions. It results from estimates of one’s own tolerance for pain in the future, the likelihood of increasing pain, the coherence of that pain, and its intensity. With strategies to protect resolve, those targeted by sanctions both up the ante with their adversaries and reinforce their own positions.

Measuring Resolve

Just as with pain, resolve can also be measured based on knowledge of a sanctions target. As shown already, if the national interest value is higher for a particular activity, it may be more impervious to change via the application of pain from sanctions, but this does not necessarily equate with being unswerving. The critical factor is the nature of the pain applied.

Measuring these changes, however, is more abstract and subject to complex internal dynamics than those directly associated with sanctions pain, which can be measured externally and—to some degree—objectively. A simple illustration can help make this point.

Let us assume that mild sanctions are imposed on a state for a particular bad act. However, let us also assume that the country being sanctioned was in the midst of an election cycle, with those vying for leadership seeking to demonstrate that they are “tougher” than the other in resisting the outside world.

The resulting statements of resolve to weather sanctions may give a variety of false impressions to the sanctioner that ultimately could lead the sanctioning state either to intensify sanctions again—contributing to an escalatory cycle—or to abandon them as not worth the risk of said escalation.

Either way, there is tremendous uncertainty in the measurement of sanctions effect on national resolve. In the absence of clear countervailing information, parties in the sanctioning jurisdiction fall back on their individual biases and assumptions. If you believe your sanctions are working, you’ll dismiss the tough talk and focus on the economics.

If you don’t, you will buy the tough talk and assume either that sanctions need strengthening (if a sanctions hawk) or that they are having a counterproductive effect. In other words, even though the people imposing sanctions had some reasonable ways of estimating how much pressure was being applied, they may have greater difficulty in understanding how this pressure might shift the commitment of the sanctioned party from its desired course of action.

The most effective way to handle this confusion is to develop a set of potential indicators so that an overall understanding of the trend can be developed. Once developed, they should be checked frequently during sanctions imposition to establish whether they indicate progress being made or sanctions pressure being lost.

There are a number of potential indictors, the value of which will depend greatly on the nature of the country being sanctioned, the nature of its economy, and the nature of any domestic pressure feedback loops for the leadership of that country. Items of particular interest include the following:

  • Public statements by government officials
  • Propaganda levels and focus
  • Economic indicators (particularly those indicating growth and sustained performance in the face of sanctions)
  • Internal political developments
  • Polling data on popular sentiments and regime support
  • Positions taken in negotiations and international fora

Let us look at each of these in greater depth to consider the range of possibilities and their meanings.

Public Statements by Government Officials

Public statements are problematic as a means of measuring national resolve because they are intended, by and large, to serve as a demonstration of resolve. Of course, if an official statement indicates that an issue is no longer of the same significance or that the country is prepared to back down, then it is relatively easy to use such statements as a means by which resolve can be measured.

Unfortunately, adversaries rarely make life that easy for one another. Even if total capitulation is on offer by a sanctioned jurisdiction, national pride would likely inhibit bold expressions of resignation. Instead, public statements from threatened parties are often meant to deny any indication of weakness.

Not for nothing was former Iraqi information minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf ridiculed during the 2003 invasion of his country for his bold proclamations of total victory for Iraqi troops while Western media reported U.S. tanks were on the outskirts of Baghdad. Less extravagant examples could also be conjured but tell the same tale of government officials seeking to influence rather than inform their audiences, much less to inform adversaries seeking to inflict pain.

Yet, at the same time, government statements can be telling, and experts on a particular topic or country’s policies may still be able to intuit what is intended. Removing the outlier of Sahhaf, there is a wide array of potentially believable government spokespeople who are forced to manage real problems in their defense of national policy. Iranian spokespeople, for example, have long sought to tread a very narrow line between blaming the United States and its partners for its economic problems while at the same time sustaining the official line that sanctions pressure is at worst meaningless and at best salutary for indigenous Iranian economic development.

In their statements, one can detect this thread and see that, over time, the pressure brought by economic sanctions was making life steadily more difficult for the Iranian government and changing the messaging. To illustrate this point, we can examine the statements by the Iranian representative to the IMF-World Bank Group Annual Meetings (located on the IMF’s website).

From 2007 to 2008, these statements suggested that Iran was irritated but not yet uncomfortable, using figures and data to illustrate the point. From 2009 to 2012, these statements suggested that Iran saw the forum as a place to lodge complaints about the pernicious impact of sanctions while avoiding getting into specifics. From 2013 to 2014 (as we shall see), these statements suggested that the new Rouhani government sought to change the tone. The Rouhani approach shifted again in 2014 with the Iranian government choosing to speak about figures again, likely because the numbers were more attractive.

How to separate the wheat from the chaff is the province of country experts, who can offer advice on the subtle uses of language and shifts in presentation. But some key markers include:

THE SIMPLE ACT OF ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Acknowledging that you have a sanctions problem is half the battle for those under outside pressure. It is difficult for governments to admit this truth, in part because it underscores to the adversary that the vulnerability it was seeking to exploit was in fact exploitable. Not for nothing has there been a history of such statements being characterized as “sowing fear and despondency” within a population.

But such acknowledgment also serves an important function for sanctioned jurisdictions: they can appeal to nationalism within the country and gain points for having admitted what may be painfully obvious rather than pretending such pressure did not and does not exist. Either way, a simple acknowledgment of the reality of sanctions pressure is an indication that the pressure is starting to bite.

APPEALS TO NATIONALISM AND RESILIENCY. Although simple acknowledgment is the first signal, a direct appeal to citizens to resist the pressure being applied is an important indicator as well.

Calls for resistance are not limited to those under sanctions, but the reframing of sanctions pressure into “economic warfare” by the target is indicative of a sanctions campaign that is starting to have a toll. The use of religious references may also reinforce the value of this shift from the perspective of interpretation, but it depends on the nature of religion in the given society.

USE OF DIFFERENT LANGUAGES FOR INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL MESSAGING. An indicator worth noting is the language in which messages are conveyed. Use of English in a nonnative English speaking country, for example, could underscore that the message is meant for external consumption, speaking either to foreign investors or foreign governments depending on the message. Likewise, mixed or ambiguous translations—or disputed translations after the fact—might also point to an attempt by a sanctioned state to avoid the problematic implications of the message being conveyed.

Propaganda Levels and Focus

Somewhat distinct from official statements of the sort outlined above is the matter of government propaganda. Propaganda can serve a useful informative role for measuring resolve, particularly the kinds of messages that are being pushed.

For our purposes, we will define “propaganda” as the system of government-sponsored messages that are not identifiable with any particular personality or spokesperson, but rather those that radiate out into the environment through radio or television placement, billboards, paper flyers, and similar means.

Messages will vary depending on the national economic and political systems, as well as the prevailing culture. But key signposts may be appeals to:

  • thrift and reduced luxury purchases, particularly from foreign sources (to lower import bills)
  • revitalize domestic industrial bases and the development of new, indigenous industry
  • rally around the flag, treating present economic circumstances as economic warfare meriting solidarity and unity; and
  • identify and report instances of public corruption.

The sum total of these messages is that the country is under strain and that citizens can help mitigate it. The first indication of a problem is the creation of targeted propaganda itself; its intensification and shifting messages over time can serve as a demonstration of deepening appreciation of the problem—demonstrating the overall impact of sanctions pressure and helping with its measurement—as well as national resolve if these messages look to pin blame on particular groups or divert attention away from the underlying problem.

More subtly, the intensification of propaganda over time can be a signpost of wavering resolve, particularly if the message begins to shift. Take, for example, messages from the Iranian government to its population about the significance of specific nuclear projects from 2003 to 2013. They were symbols of potent significance in their own right, with inaugural activities hosted at multiple times.

By the end of 2016, the messages from the government were different, emphasizing the overall progress of the Iranian nation and its development of advanced technologies and capabilities. Specific facilities or projects are less important in this vein than the overall trend line, which makes sense given that the Iranian government gave up considerable capacities—for at least for ten to fifteen years—in the JCPOA. Seen from the outside, one could argue that this signpost emerged as negotiations began, helping some within the Iranian government to redefine the debate and condition the population for concessions to come.

In other words, what was arguably a demonstration of resolve and strength actually became a way of signaling that the Iranian government was preparing to make concessions and that its resolve to maintain those present projects was weakening.

In Iraq, government propaganda was far more personal, aimed at burnishing the image of Saddam Hussein and the strength of the Iraqi army in managing the threats coming from the outside world. He sought to suppress information that could undermine his public stance of unshakable, immutable defiance and held that to the last.

Economic Indicators 

Economic indicators are the most straightforward markers of national resolve to obtain, but potentially as difficult to interpret as public statements or propaganda. One can readily develop pictures of economic health for most countries under sanctions (with North Korea an exception that may even prove the rule, given that the difficulty of the task has hardly stopped people from making the attempt). Moreover, the pictures developed can receive some degree of corroboration from external sources.

Trade data, for example, can be gathered both from the sanctioned state and from its trading partners, allowing for a stronger interpretation and more confidence in what the data gathered might mean. Even other data streams that rely on purely domestic collection can be subjected to verification.

Unemployment and inflation data can be manipulated by a government, but the person on the street can tell an observer whether he or she has a job, for how many hours a week, and what the price of chicken is at the local butcher. Official statistics can also be scrutinized by the sanctioned country’s own population, which—to varying degrees depend on the freedom of speech laws and practices at home—can be aired publicly.

The difficulty comes in ascertaining what the statistics mean in terms of national resolve. For example, a 5 percent contraction in GDP is a significant economic event. But how that contraction is felt matters in terms of how effective the sanction is; so too does the overall starting size of the economy and where the loss is felt directly. Likewise, unemployment climbing above 40 percent is a sign of economic illness, but perhaps less so in a country where 20 percent unemployment has been endemic for a generation. Inflation figures can also be subject to the same interpretative endeavor.

In other words, as has been stressed throughout this book, the important part in interpreting the effect of economic indicators on national resolve is to avoid facile comparisons or non-context-specific generalizations. Indicators of poor economic performance matter in some places more than others, meaning that the temptation to mirror image the reaction to economic problems in one place to one’s own experience needs to be checked. Measuring the impact of sanctions, as noted above, needs to be in relation to the status quo, not the ideal, and measuring national resolve merits the same consideration.

Of course, there is also the possibility that economic indicators are of such sensitivity for a country that it refuses to release them or—in the case of Iraq in the 1990s—classifies them as sensitive national security information.4 This, in and of itself, can also constitute a source of information of both the nature of the statistic being obscured and the fear of the country in question. Iran, by contrast, continued publishing economic statistics throughout the 2006–2013 sanctions campaign, but it is believed to have tinkered with them in order to present a less negative image.5

Official statistics of Iranian unemployment, for example, downplayed significantly the absolute number of unemployed Iranians as well as the level of inflation throughout the country. That said, some statistics are hard to obscure. For example, even though Iran maintained an official exchange rate with the U.S. dollar throughout the sanctions period, it resisted attempts to reconcile this rate with the black-market rate, which at some points was up to three times higher than the official rate.

Likewise, attempts to distort the inflation figure were belied by people being able to go into the market place and simply do the math on how much more consumer goods cost on one day versus the previous day. The same sort of math undermined Iraq’s attempt to maintain an official fiction as to the state of the overall economy.

For sanctioners, even distorted statistics have some value. If badly distorted, then they highlight the degree to which economic performance is a vulnerability and—depending on what factor is distorted—a potentially acute pressure point.

For Iran, sanctioners observed that unemployment and underemployment were sensitivities; therefore, sanctioners sought to exacerbate the problem. The same applied to the weakness of the Iranian currency, dependent as it was on the supply of hard currency from exports abroad. It became an integral part of the strategy to undermine perception of the strength of the Iranian rial by the population as well as to dilute the currency itself by depriving Iran of the hard currency it needed.

Internal Political Developments

This indicator may be, on the surface, less applicable to autocracies than democracies. But all governments have politics; indeed, all organizations have politics, as anyone who has ever worked in a group larger than two people can testify.

Kim Jong Un of North Korea may be a prototypical autocrat whose personal and national interests are fully distinct from the interests of his people. Arguably, nuclear weapons possession is only of value to Kim and his ruling clique, as it permits them greater protection from outside interference (though the devastation that could be wrought in a Korean peninsular war today, even without nuclear weapons, is surely also a deterrent).

For the people of North Korea, their leadership may argue that nuclear weapons protect them, but considering their greatest enemy is their own government, outside threats are hardly their biggest problem.

For Kim, it is arguable that almost no level of economic pressure would be sufficient to topple him, at least given current views of the consolidated nature of his regime. Assuming that he can maintain control of his inner circle through a combination of perks and threats, Kim is largely in a position to sustain his authority. He is fully prepared to pass on the effects of any pressure to his population, and they are essentially powerless to affect him in turn.

Moreover, as a result of the country’s economic insularity, there are few sectors against which pressure could be applied (though, as we shall see in chapter 9, that doesn’t mean an effort cannot be made to find sources of leverage).

In contrast, fully functional democracies are highly vulnerable to domestic political pressure created by sanctions. Take, for example, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in response to concerns about the stalemated nature of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in the interim.

To an open economy and democratic society like Israel’s, BDS is a real threat not only to the growth potential of the country but also to its diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, its integration into the Western world and its culture, and the political stability of its government. Some Israelis are rightly frustrated with their treatment under the BDS campaign (though others have even gone to court to protect their right to campaign in favor of BDS). Regardless, there is an ongoing debate as to the underlying causes of the campaign and who is to blame for its intensification over the last several years.

There is also ongoing disagreement about the costs of BDS, with some questioning its effectiveness and others—including the RAND Corporation, with a fascinating online calculator—estimating that Israel could stand to lose approximately $47 billion over ten years due to BDS and related problems.6

What this internal turmoil prompts as a response is another matter, but for purposes of this study, the interesting facet is that the debate is being had and pressure is being created on the Israeli government to deal with the problem.7 Such pressure would likely not be felt (or would be felt less) if the Israeli government was not a democracy with a free market economy.

Of course, what is happening inside of one type of government may be more visible than in another. For democracies, the political developments are somewhat more transparent. Ministers can be sacked for failure to manage situations that lead to the imposition of sanctions or have their responsibilities realigned. Ultimately, even a country’s head of government could be replaced as a consequence of the imposition of sanctions and/or the failure to manage the situation effectively.

Autocracies also have their political currents, albeit in ways that may be peculiar to observe and inscrutable to outsiders.

During the Cold War, intelligence analysts and newspaper reporters alike sought to understand who was in power and who was not in the Soviet Union by engaging in Kremlinology, often by taking note of who was standing closest to the Soviet premier in photographs. The same sorts of practices can be used in evaluating the political undercurrents of other countries.

But to what end? Internal political developments are not just interesting from a country-level perspective. They are also potentially indicative of real shifts of power and influence in a country.

In this way, they can also point to changes in regime perspective on particular issues or the degree to which a national priority has become an essential interest. Of course, these signals can also be misinterpreted. In 2009, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Reza Aghazadeh, was replaced by Ali Salehi. Some observers saw this as a potentially welcome shift of Iranian perspective on the nuclear program, with Salehi being seen by some as a deal-making, Western-thinking pragmatist in comparison with Aghazadeh.

Yet, five years later during negotiations over the JCPOA, Salehi—reprising this role after a stint as Iran’s foreign minister—was often quoted as drawing tough lines for nuclear negotiators to manage.

One way of interpreting this apparent shift is that Aghazadeh’s removal was not a signal to the West, but rather an attempt by the Iranian government to replace a less competent manager of the nuclear program with a better one; in other words, Salehi’s appointment underscored the importance of the nuclear program, not the beginning of a more accommodating phase in the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the number of centrifuges installed from Salehi’s initial appointment in 2009 until January 2011 doubled.8

For this reason, like all other measures, it is not prudent to consider domestic political developments as independently important variables, because their meaning can be misinterpreted. Rather, they should be seen as important elements of a larger picture.

For example, while Salehi’s appointment in 2009 may not have been indicative of a mindset shift, the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in June 2013 (and on a platform of rebuilding the Iranian economy through a more positive interaction with the outside world) did mark a real transition in the approach of the Iranian government to one that is both more interested in foreign perspectives and willing to accommodate foreign concerns with its nuclear program.

His election marked the end of a period of intense sanctions escalation against Iran, and his campaign focused on the imperative of removing international sanctions as a means of achieving economic growth. The political development of Rouhani being elected and permitted to become president of Iran (considering that the Iranian political system is designed to weed out those who are deemed inappropriate) could be interpreted as an indication of weakening Iranian resolve to stand against international concerns and readiness to take another approach.

Polling Data on Popular Sentiments and Regime Support 

This takes us to the issue of polling data and similar expressions of popular sentiments. As with internal political dynamics, this indicator is probably more easily observed in democratic systems of government than in autocracies. Yet, even in most autocracies, there are ways to measure and assess the views of the population, including through polling.

Certainly, polls in authoritarian jurisdictions merit some degree of skepticism unless their methodologies sufficiently exclude the possibility of knee-jerk support for government policies, whatever they may be. But to the degree that polling can confidently describe national priorities and interests, they can be useful in helping to develop a picture of the target country’s perspectives. And, importantly, they can be used to identify which issues might be sufficient cause to provoke civil unrest or, at a minimum, civil discontent.

Polls from Saddam’s Iraq are difficult to find. Official election results from Iraq routinely placed Saddam above 99 percent in his “reelection” campaigns.9 In Iran, by contrast, there has been a steady accumulation of polls during the course of the 1990s and 2000s, helping to inform outsiders on the nature and evolution of Iranian public thinking.

For example, prior to 2005, the nuclear program did not rate very highly in importance for Iranians.10 After the 2005–2013 sanctions, when the nuclear program was daily news, polling reflects increased interest in and attachment to the program.11 Likewise, polling data changed over time with respect to public sentiments on the threat of sanctions to the Iranian economy and the importance of removing those sanctions in a deal.12

That said, polling in an authoritarian system like Iran comes with its own challenges, beyond those that afflict polling everywhere (e.g., with respect to finding an appropriate sample size, dealing with outlier opinions, and the fickle nature of respondents). Polling is therefore useful to add data for consideration by policy makers, but may not be determinative.

Positions Taken in Negotiations and International Fora

Last, one can take a country’s representatives at their word when they describe national interests during the course of negotiations. There are ample opportunities for representatives of governments to lay out their perspectives, concerns, and priorities in a range of negotiating and other international fora from the United Nations to specialized international agencies to unofficial workshops. Statements of position in these places may not differ markedly from what officials are prepared to enter onto the record in more public statements. But, in some cases, they can offer glimpses into the calculations made by all governments when assessing problems.

Certainly, this is the case in negotiations themselves. Once negotiations move beyond anodyne statements of position, they usually involve an exchange of views on how particular issues might be solved that expose the nature of the interests involved. Sometimes, these statements can shift, creating confusion, but oftentimes there is broad consistency between public and private positioning.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Identifying ways to measure and evaluate pain and resolve conditions is useful, but it falls short without some kind of construct into which they can be placed. Worse, the fact that indicators could all point in different directions runs the risk that, far from being a way of understanding better the design and impact of sanctions, considerations of pain and resolve could become just tools for justifying or criticizing in hindsight the decisions made by policymakers.

To some extent, these are unavoidable risks. Foreign policy inherently deals with imprecision in national positions and perspectives, made more indistinct by the real benefits countries can sometimes garner from having their positions misunderstood by their adversary. But there are also problems inherent in deliberately sowing misunderstanding.

This book proceeds from the notion that, for all of the incentive to mislead and distort positions, states naturally incline toward conveying some semblance of the truth in their official pronouncements and perspectives. If a state says that it claims sovereignty over a jurisdiction and will refuse to relinquish it, then it is folly to enter the conversation with an assumption that this is altogether untrue.

Rather, what’s more sensible is to assume that the position being expressed is—at a minimum—a going-in position meriting serious attention but potentially subject to revision. Though a state can modify its positions over time, such initial positioning should be taken as, if not the ideal outcome, a desired outcome.

From these assumptions, it is possible to instead use information about sanctions justifications, the measures themselves, and the perspectives of the sanctioned state to give an adequate, if rough, approximation of relative interests, willingness to apply economic force, and willingness to resist it.



1. Nick Miroff and Karen DeYoung, “New U.S. Sanctions Lost in Venezuela’s Translation,” Washington Post, March 11, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/new-us-sanctions-lost-in-venezuelas-translation/2015/03/11/f8f3af6a-c7ff-11e4-bea5-b893e7ac3fb3_story.html.

2. AFP, “U.S. Lawmaker Urges Iranian Gasoline Embargo,” February 10, 2010, http://www.iranfocus.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19770:us-lawmaker-urges-iranian-gasoline-embargo&catid=8:nuclear&Itemid=113.

3. Official data from the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company, courtesy of FGE.

4. Central Intelligence Agency, September 30, 2004, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/.

5. Suzanne Maloney, Iran’s Political Economy Since the Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 337–338.

6. Ora Coren and Zvi Zrahiya, “Knesset Report: BDS Movement Has No Impact on Economy,” Haaretz, January 9, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.636172; RAND International Center for Middle East Public Policy, “Calculating the Costs of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” http://www.rand.org/international/cmepp/costs-of-conflict/calculator.html; John Reed, “Israel: A New Kind of War,” Financial Times, June 12, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f11c1e1c-0e13-11e5-8ce9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3pP9sY2Oy.

7. “Netanyahu Failed in Stemming Tide of BDS Against Israel,’ Herzog Says,” JPost.com, June 5, 2015, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Netanyahu-failed-in-stemming-tide-of-BDS-against-Israel-Herzog-says-405166.

8. IAEA Reports to the Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” August 2009 and February 2011, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iran/iaea-and-iran-iaea-reports.

9. “Saddam ‘Wins 100% of Vote,’ ” BBC News, October 16, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/2331951.stm.

10. Terror Free Tomorrow, “Polling Iranian Public Opinion: An Unprecedented Nation-wide Survey of Iran,” June 5, 2007, http://www.terrorfree tomorrow.org/upimagestft/TFT%20Iran%20Survey%20Report.pdf.

11. Sara Beth Elson and Alireza Nader, “What Do Iranians Think?” RAND Corporation, 2011, http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR910.html.

12. Nancy Gallagher, Ebrahim Mohseni, and Clay Ramsay, “Iranian Public Opinion on the Nuclear Negotiations,” Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland, June 2015, http://www.cissm.umd.edu/publications/iranian-public-opinion-nuclear-negotiations.


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