Swedish FM: Sanctions should be part of the policy, not the policy

by Jasmin Ramsey

Observers of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program will be familiar with Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt. Around this time last year, the outspoken diplomat and former Prime Minister warned against striking Iran’s nuclear program in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that such a move would practically guarantee the emergence of the so-far non-existent Iranian nuclear weapon, among other undesirable consequences:

A military attack against Iran risks igniting a period of confrontation across the region with consequences that no one can fully predict. The turmoil could end up producing several nuclear-armed states in what is probably the most volatile area of the world. And there could be war both with and within the Muslim world.

Bildt is also critical of the Iranian sanctions regime. Last week, during his speech at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Conference, Bildt said sanctions should be viewed as a a tool for effective policy, rather than the policy (something that former top CIA analyst Paul Pillar has been stressing, with his usual level-headed eloquence, for over two years).

These days, and especially since the beginning of this year, more and more foreign policy experts have been recommending a rethinking of the Iranian sanctions regime, including those who initially pushed for them. But is it too late? (Following is my selection of the transcript of Bildt’s speech.)

There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council – for reasons of legality as well as efficiency. But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.

Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.

Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost.

In my view, economic sanctions are more likely to influence the policy choices of the recipient during two phases of a clash of wills.

The first is when they are under discussion, before an actual decision has been taken.

It is often said that the agreement between Iran, Turkey and Brazil in the spring of 2010 – the Teheran Declaration – was meant to avert the imposition of sanctions by the Security Council.

If that was the case, it is a good illustration of my point.

The second phase where sanctions are more likely to influence policy is when there is a clear and credible prospect of lifting them.

The intervening period – when a gradual increase in the “pain level” should cause the recipient regime to change course – is more problematic, and the record of history rather discouraging.

Gradually, regimes and economies adjust even to sanctions.

New structures emerge. There are those profiting from the isolation and the decline. Often more or less part of the regime.

And more often than not, the regimes are directing the anger of the population against the foreign evils.

I know of no case where economic despair caused by sanctions has caused a nation to rise up and topple an unpopular regime.

Once sanctions have been imposed, there is a risk of a self-perpetuating logic in which the targeted country tends to dig its heels deeper into the ground, while the side pressing for change issues impatient calls for broadening and strengthening the resultless’ sanctions, in wave after wave, until they really bite’.

It is against this backdrop that I sometimes question the tendency to turn to sanctions as the first line of defence in every crisis and I argue that sanctions are probably most effective at two very specific points in a dispute, as I have just mentioned.

Iran is a case we have to look at very carefully.

Photo: Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.