April 29, 2015

By Richard Nephew

(I would like to thank Yassamin Issapour, undergraduate student at Columbia University studying Economics & Sustainable Development, for her research assistance for this post.)


A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions by a student. I have received the question before, as have all those who at one time or another were responsible for imposing sanctions. The student who asked me was calm and respectful, as one would expect, far more so than the person who accused me of being a baby killer at a human rights forum two years ago. But, the question still touched a nerve, coming as it did on the heels of a discussion of the use of sanctions to confront the Iranian government’s violations of its citizens’ human rights.

When officials in charge of sanctions are confronted with questions about the humanitarian impact of their tool of choice, they often respond in one of two ways: denying the impact, citing the presence of exemptions to sanctions that are intended to mitigate such consequences; or, blaming the target, pointing to the misbehavior that led to the problem in the first place.

Neither of these responses are wrong, per se, and I used elements of both to respond to the question at hand. It is true that sanctions often come with carve-outs for humanitarian trade. It is also true that, notwithstanding allegations to the contrary, sanctions are not imposed capriciously, at least in the United States. For legal and policy reasons, there is always a legitimate rationale for their imposition. Moreover, there are also opportunities given to the target of sanctions to seek their removal, either by reforming their policies at the heart of the matter or by seeking legal redress.

But, these kinds of responses also miss the point and rightly leave many audiences feeling that the question has been dodged. Certainly, it is an awkward conversation to have, particularly if the ostensible reason for putting sanctions in place is to punish a government for its misdeeds, often against its own people. The answers are never satisfactory and often seem callous. Then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright may have earned the most opprobrium in this regard for her tin-eared comment in 1995 that the massive death-toll attributed to the effects of sanctions against Iraq, including of children, was worthwhile due to the need to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein’s government. (It is notable that, since then, Albright has forcefully recanted and apologized for that comment on multiple occasions.)

Albright’s poor choice of words notwithstanding, her comment does crystalize the real moral dilemma created by the use of sanctions. Though it is understandable that she would wish to distance herself from her original words, the reality is that those who impose sanctions on a country do, in a very real sense, make the choice that the ends justify the means.

Policy is full of tough conflicts…

This is not a radical concept for governments. On a daily basis, all governments make decisions that, in some fashion or another, harm either their own citizens or those of another country. Even the mildest act can have this effect: a decision to halt the procurement of pens from a company could put someone out of work. When this is scaled up to the national security space, governments can routinely be seen making calls that lead to real damages for people around the world and even deaths. Many public policy debates center on such challenges. In widely diverse issues – from trade treaty negotiations to climate change – policy makers are forced to demonstrate that, on balance, the advantages of a particular course of action outweigh the costs. This uncomfortable reality was, once again, set in sharp relief with the revelation that a January 2015 drone strike in Pakistan killed both al Qaeda operatives and two innocent captives, including one American.

What is unusual about economic sanctions is that, all too often, they are seen as “soft” power that achieves their results in subtle ways. The United States and its partners have reinforced this mindset over the past decade in their persistent search for finely targeted sanctions. The theory that drives such considerations is that while the Iraq sanctions program in the 1990s created widespread misery for the Iraqi population, a more targeted approach could avoid such consequences and still deliver results.

To a large extent, the architects of this approach – including myself in various roles from July 2006 to January 2015 – have been successful in this ambition. For example, despite being under some of the most comprehensive economic sanctions imposed to date on a country, most Iranians are not starving (and for those that are, it is probably due to the same economic dislocation that afflicts people in every other country on earth). A brief survey of the data available at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) statistical division shows that the average caloric intake per person in Iran was 3,244, roughly on par or just below most of the developed world and that the number of undernourished people in Iran did not change to a significant degree from 1990-1992 to 2012-2014.[1] Iran does import agricultural items and food, in part to adjust for poor harvests, but this is not particularly noteworthy. In 2011, Iran was not even in the top 20 importers of food (though the United States was the second largest and countries of population size both greater and less than Iran made the list).

That said, Iran also has some of the highest food prices in the world, also according to the FAO’s 2014 handbook. Similarly, though Iran does not import as much as the United States may, the cost of its imports is far higher. Food is a major part of the Iranian inflation problem that has persisted for decades, a problem which got worse between 2011-2013 when a combination of sanctions and longstanding economic problems drove the Iranian economy into recession. Anecdotal information as well as news articles and reports[2] assigned some of the blame for the high cost of food to the expensive nature of transportation to Iran, the reluctance of banks to conduct transactions with Iran even in approved areas, and the depreciation of the Iranian currency. The result was that, though humanitarian exemptions and carve-outs exist, the population of Iran did suffer the effects of sanctions during that time, a condition that persists today.

The impacts go well beyond economic. Some have even linked the increase in air pollution and lung cancer deaths in Iran to the imposition of sanctions on Iran’s imports of gasoline in 2010. This step pushed the Iranian government to convert facilities that made petrochemicals into poor gasoline refineries and to increase the amount of benzene in the gasoline, rendering a product with greater amounts of carcinogens.[3] Certainly, it is true that there are many potential causes for increased pollution in Iran.  The World Health Organization (WHO) and its affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes these petrochemicals and other pollutants as a leading cause of cancer.[4] According to WHO, in 2013, four of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in Iran.[5] After all, according to the same reporting, six of the most polluted cities in the world were in countries not targeted with sanctions.  However, it is reasonable to consider whether the changes in Iranian gasoline production after 2010 had some role to play in the pollution problem there.  At a minimum, this is something that people in Iran believe has had a negative health effect on the population. Kaveh Jaseb, ex-chief of Shafa Hospital in Ahwaz—the most polluted city in the world in 2013—noted in 2014 that new numbers of people diagnosed with cancer from 1996 to 2013 increased by nearly 500 percent and that, taking aside constants like genetic and personal health factors, environmental reasons may have played a part.[6]

Examples abound elsewhere as to the human toll of sanctions. In Russia, the impact of lower oil prices and financial sanctions on the ruble is such that, according to the World Bank, real wages in Russia are set to plummet as prices climb.[7] In Africa, aid workers have long complained that sanctions intended to stop the flow of support to terrorist groups also inhibit their ability to provide support for vulnerable populations. In North Korea, US sanctions against the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB), a North Korean bank involved in transactions supporting Pyongyang’s proliferation-related activities, led to major problems for humanitarian groups operating in North Korea due to the unexpected participation of the Bank of China in cutting off FTB’s operations in China.[8]

Such effects occur notwithstanding humanitarian policies and carve-outs in sanctions laws. This is because, at the end of the day, economic sanctions are intended to have economic costs and to disrupt the natural workings of economic actors. This is an unavoidable outcome and, indeed, is part of the strategic underpinning of the tool. The entire idea behind economic sanctions is that they create real economic cost. But, lost in all of the details cited by government officials and members of Congress is the realty that unemployment in Iran (or wherever else) means that a real person is out of a job, with all the costs that come along with that.

…but choices still have to be made…

At this juncture, many writers advocate that sanctions be reconsidered, at a minimum. Some authors have suggested that sanctions must be terminated altogether, given the human costs, while others argue that sanctions be made more targeted.

I do not believe that pain can be removed from the application of sanctions. Pain is an instrumental part of the tool and, without pain, they are pointless. But, it should be mitigated where possible. To some extent, this may be accomplished by ensuring that avenues for procuring humanitarian goods remain open even as sanctions are imposed. Such an approach must involve not only financial mechanisms but also access to transportation and related services. As sanctions expand to further exploit national vulnerabilities to the international economy, there should be defined mechanisms in place to approve and – if necessary – license humanitarian transactions with affected jurisdictions. The United States already does this to a remarkable degree with respect to Iran and other targets of sanctions, but such mechanisms only involve US companies and banks. This would make sense solely if US sanctions only had a national impact, but – in some cases as a matter of law and, in others, a matter of practice – US sanctions go well beyond a purely national reach. As such, the United States has a responsibility to establish clear guidance and, if necessary, legally-sanctioned tools to provide comfort to those seeking to do legitimate business in sanctioned countries. This may require additional cooperation from international companies with US government agencies – as blank checks are inadvisable in a world of widespread sanctions evasion and diversion. But, all-round, there ought to be more effort expended to shore up the access that sanctioned populations have to necessary humanitarian goods.

Other aspects of this problem are unsolvable so long as sanctions are being employed. There are no readily available means to address the loss in purchasing power created by downward pressure on a currency from sanctions. Consequently, even with a dedicated financial channel, it is possible that goods will simply be too expensive for consumers in a sanctioned country. This – again – is part of the point: if a government is forced to choose between feeding and providing medical care for its population, and pursuing illicit conduct that led to the imposition of sanctions in the first place, then that government will either make the right choice or, if it instead continues with its bad behavior, be identified clearly as the culprit for the pain experienced by its population.

…with eyes open to the consequences.

But, this means that sanctions advocates should recognize that, far from a bloodless instrument, sanctions are, in the words of Carl Von Clausewitz, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”[9] And as Clauswitz further observed in relation to military warfare rather than economic sanctions, “it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.” In other words, those who argue stridently in favor of sanctions ought to be compelled to articulate – as Albright was infamously forced to – whether they believe that the costs are justified, to own those costs, and to acknowledge the real impact of the policies they embrace.


Moreover, those who are sanctions proponents ought to consider very carefully whether their advocacy does not inadvertently harm those that they aim to help. Iranian citizens have long noted that, though many in the United States claim to support them and their ambitions, economic sanctions harm them directly and far more than they do the government or pockets of elite mentioned in press releases. In fact, some of the strongest proponents of human rights in Iran are also some of the strongest proponents of crippling sanctions against Iran, leading to an awkward tension between stated aims and practical results to say the very least. These same proponents ought to be asked whether their desire to impose real costs on the Iranian regime they so loathe is worth the damage to the people they say they support (particularly as the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is being met with scorn for its early relief of nuclear-related sanctions).

A better answer to the student who asked me about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions would be: There are no risk- or repercussion-free choices in national security policymaking. Sanctions often do far less harm than military conflict – particularly to targeted populations – and, if they can achieve results, ought to be a preferred tool. But, sanctions are a weapon and weapons do damage. They should be wielded carefully, wisely and in full recognition of the costs they impose.

Richard Nephew is Director of the Economic Statecraft, Sanctions, and Energy Markets program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, and the former Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the State Department. The views expressed are his own.

[1] UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Food and Nutrition in Numbers, 2014,” http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4175e.pdf.

[2] See for example; Gordon, J., “The Human Costs of the Iran Sanctions,” Foreign Policy, October 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/10/18/the-human-costs-of-the-iran-sanctions/;

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, 2013, “A Growing Crisis: The Impact of Sanctions and Regime Policies on Iranians’ Economic and Social Rights,” http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/04/growing_crisis/

[3] Ghorayashi, A., “Choking to death in Tehran,” Newsweek, March 28, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/2014/03/28/choking-death-tehran-248027.html.

[4] IARC, Press Release “Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths,” http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/pr221_E.pdf.

[5] As reported in Payvand Iran News, “Four Iranian cities rank among world's 10 most polluted,” December 4, 2013, http://www.payvand.com/news/13/dec/1017.html.

[6] Mehr News Agency, “Increase of Cancer in Ahwaz Due to Increased Air Pollution,” , January 21, 2014, http://www.mehrnews.com/news/2217330/افزایش-سرطان-در-خوزستان-پای-آلودگی-هوا-در-میان-است

[7] The World Bank in the Russian Federation, “Russia Economic Report,” April 2015, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2....

[8] “North Korea sanctions hit foreign aid groups,” Associated Press via The Guardian, May 30, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/30/north-korea-sanctions-hit-f....

[9] Von Clausewitz, C., On War, Penguin Classics Version (1982) of the 1908 translation by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.