The Security Council, the main body for crisis management at the United Nations, may respond to global threats by severing economic ties with governmental and non-governmental groups. Sanctions resolutions must be adopted by a council comprising 15 members by a majority vote without the veto of any of the five permanent members. This decision of the UN Security Council shall be implemented in accordance with Chapter Seven and Article 41 of the UN Charter.
Prior to 1990, the Council imposed sanctions on only two countries: South Rhodesia (1966) and South Africa (1977). However, since the end of the Cold War, the Council has used sanctions more than 20 times; most of the times the parties to the civil conflict were targeted, as in Somalia, Liberia, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But despite such measures, sanctions are often divisive and reflect the interests of the world powers. For example, since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed several Security Council resolutions on the conflict in Syria; resolutions that could lead to sanctions against the government of Bashar Assad.
US Unilateral Sanctions
The United States uses economic and financial sanctions more than any other country. Sanctions policy may come from the executive or legislature branches. Presidents routinely implement this process by issuing an executive order (EO) in response to an “unusual and extraordinary” external threat.
The Congress, for its part, may pass legislation to impose new sanctions or amend the existing laws, which has been done in many cases. In cases where there are multiple legal authorities, congressional and executive action may be needed to change or remove restrictions; like Cuba and Iran. In July 2017, the Congress passed a bill and Donald Trump reluctantly signed it, which was added to the sanctions list of Russia, Iran and North Korea. The bill is noteworthy in that it requires the president to explain any suspension of sanctions to the legislature.
In 2017, the United States imposed extensive sanctions on Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. In addition, sanctions were imposed on more than a dozen other programs targeting individuals involved in specific political crises or suspected of certain types of criminal behavior, such as drug trafficking. It regularly adds (removes) more than 6,000 individuals, occupations, and groups (known as special citizens) to its blacklist. The assets of these individuals are frozen and Americans, including American businesses and their foreign affiliates, are barred from doing business with them.
The Office of Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation (SPI) is responsible for designing and enforcing sanctions related to foreign policy to address national security threats arising from specific activities and specific countries. It provides international support for the implementation of economic sanctions, provides guidance in the field of foreign policy to the Treasury Department on the implementation of sanctions; it also works with the Congress to legislate rules to advance targets of the foreign policy of the United States in those areas.
Sanctions at the US State Department
By issuing Executive Order 13224, George W. Bush gave the Treasury Department officials broad powers to freeze the assets and financial transactions of individuals and entities suspected of supporting terrorism. A few weeks later, Bush gave the Treasury excessive power to determine external competencies and financial institutions as the “fundamental risks of money laundering” (under Article 311 of the United States Patriot Act). The Treasury only needs a reasonable suspicion – and not necessarily any evidence – to target those covered by those laws.
Sanctions as an Economic War
In the past, the conventional strategy of war involved besieging a city or a country. This method has been used to isolate the enemy, prevent it from using its resources, subdue it in famine, and ultimately achieve victory. Conventional wars today involve economic sanctions that are used for the same purpose. From 1990 to 2003, UN Security Council sanctions against Iraq killed more than one million civilians. In fact, it was a war waged by bankers and led by an institution ostensibly to secure and maintain peace.
Because the sanctions regime is diverse and numerous, its effects on the economic systems of the target countries are also diverse. Experts believe that light and partial sanctions can reduce the gross national product (GNP) by up to one percent, but widespread sanctions can change the rate by up to five percent. In fact, a 5 percent drop in the gross national product (GNP) in a weak country can put a lot of pressure on the poor people. Especially when food imports to those countries stop. Decrease in importing pharmaceutical items and vaccines can also cause major problems for the people of the target country. Significant increase in diseases, malnutrition, and deaths in the target country is among the cases that cannot be easily defended before the world public opinion. Sanctions that have such effects are often not welcomed and ultimately fail.
Sanctions as a Strategy or Tactic
The financial system of the United States is the engine of world trade. It alone accounts for about 25 percent of the world economy. A very important point about the United States is that it is a structure-oriented rather than a person-centered country, which means that changing people in the pyramid of power has no effect on its strategies. What may change as a result of the presidential election in that country are the tactics of the administrations. Since administrations usually become uncontrollable in the second term, it is expected that Trump would do more than he tried to disrupt the world order in the first term. Because the current period is a transitional period in international relations, what is happening is a transfer of power from the West to the East and a decline in US hegemony. Although this transition period may last for several decades, its occurrence is undeniable.
The United States recognizes the Islamic Republic of Iran as a regional power with strategic depth and acknowledges this in its documents; but because of its efforts to counter China and even control Russia, it is safe to say that if the United States had previously been present in the Middle East under the pretext of fighting terrorism (a policy that has been a dominant plan for the US military presence in the region since Bush era), this time will try to act as a proxy in the region. Therefore, it withdraws its military forces from the region and instead tries to control Iran’s power in this way by building consensus among the Arab states, and instead focuses on East Asia.
The policy of maximum pressure of the United States against the Islamic Republic, which primarily aimed at social collapse in Iran and the uprising of the people against the establishment, then bringing the Islamic Republic system down to its knees and dismantling the Axis of Resistance in the region, was practically failed. As a result of this US action, the Islamic Republic, adhering to the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was able to reach a global consensus against the United States at the time of its withdrawal, the obvious result of which is quite evident in the UN Security Council and the failure of the United States, firstly in activating the trigger mechanism and secondly in the failure of that country to extend the UN arms embargo against the Islamic Republic. It should be noted that in the United States, due to the organized power, the administration has little role in determining its strategies. In fact, what administrations in the United States are expanding on, are the tactics or methods of implementing their policies and strategies. Under this assumption, US sanctions against Iran, given their historical background, which have been in place since the early days of the Islamic Revolution and are increasingly being applied more intelligently, are a particular US strategy, especially against Iran. As a result, electing Trump or Biden will not change the US strategy much toward Iran. Therefore, what governments in the Islamic Republic should pay serious attention to is determining a strategy in order to counter the said sanctions!
- Economic sanctions or the white-collar war,” by Thierry Meyssan, Translation Pete Kimberley, Voltaire Network, October 17, 2016.
- ‘Sanctions Are a Failure…Let’s Admit That, by David Francis and Lara Jakes, Foreign Policy, April 28, 2016.
- Dam, Kenneth W. The Role of the United States in the Global Economy, Remarks by Kenneth W. Dam, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2002.
- Lisa L. Martin, Coercive Cooperation: Explaining Multilateral Economic Sanctions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).