The imposition of new, more stringent sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales by the Trump administration has once again raised the question: is this even a viable policy?
The Council on Foreign Relations defines sanctions as “a lower-cost, lower-risk, middle course of action between diplomacy and war.” In short, sanctions do not represent policy per se, but rather the absence of policy, little more than a stop-gap measure to be used while other options are considered and/or developed.
Not surprising, sanctions have rarely—if ever—succeeded in obtaining their desired results. The poster child for successful sanctions as a vehicle for change—divestment in South Africa during the 1980s in opposition to the Apartheid regime—is in reality a red herring. The South Africa sanctions were in fact counterproductive, in so far as they prompted even harsher policies from the South African government. The demise of Apartheid came about largely because the Soviet Union collapsed, meaning the South African government was no longer needed in the fight against communism.