Using economic sanctions to curb state behaviour is something which has conventionally been considered as an apt supporter or supported government tool alongside military and political levers of power. Indeed, whilst it is increasingly important to combine economic, military, and political methods to achieve influence, it is nevertheless important to understand the context and environment in which these efforts are exercised. In a recent conference paper, I analysed this issue in the context of the United States policy of using sanctions to influence Iranian behaviour (specifically with respect to its nuclear programme).

The paper, at the Seventh Annual Association for the Study of the Middle East and Afric (ASMEA) Conference: Searching for Balance in the Middle East and Africa, titled ‘The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014)’, identified the fact that the nature of the international political system is such that any form of sanctions are necessarily more effective on a multilateral as opposed to a bilateral level. This can be explained through an understanding of the context in which the sanctions were implemented.

When the initial sanctions were put in place against the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime in 1979, the Middle Eastern state was much less dependent on foreign states. Or more importantly, Iran was more dependent on the US prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Then in the mid-1990s, the US upped the pressure on the international community (through the United Nations and unilaterally) to align against the IRI. At this point, notably the European Union (EU) refuted this US pressure to punish Iran, and even threatened to take the US imposed 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), citing its extraterritorial nature (and negative impact on European interests). This initial sabre rattling ultimately led to a US-EU agreement the following year foregoing the ILSA targeting European companies and interests in Iran (and Libya). This not only demonstrated the resistance to US pressure to sanction the IRI, but also the relatively positive light in which EU-Iranian ties were viewed from Brussels.

Then in the early 2000s, Iran was revealed to have more advanced nuclear capabilities than initially thought, with respect to the purpose and development of its Natanz and Arak facilities. Cue new bouts of US bilateral sanctions on Iran and pressure for multilateral action against the perceived threat of the IRI. At that point, the EU still resisted punishing Iran through sanctions and pursued a diplomatic approach to the problem under the guise of the EU3 (namely; the UK, France and Germany) from 2002 to 2006. During these four years, the EU continued to use this soft approach (with an ebb and flow of US support). However, the EU3 goal of ensuring IRI transparency and coordination through the UN nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was left unachieved. As a result, the EU began to increase and implemented sanctions on Iran between 2007 and 2012, thereby aligning itself with the US intent on curbing the IRI’s behaviour.

Then in 2013, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was agreed upon between Iran and the P5+1 (or the EU3+3 – the EU3 successor), that is the 5 members of the UNSC plus Germany, made possible via the mediation efforts of the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Lady Catherine Ashton. This new hope for a comprehensive solution to the problem once again demonstrated the interdependent nature of the international system, in the sense that the agreement required the presence and assent from the 5 (6 including the EU) actors represented. Therefore, in order for the US policy of using sanctions to curb Iranian behaviour in this context, it would need the support from the fellow P5+1 members in order for it to be effective.

As a result, increased sanctions past the 24 November 2014 deadline set for an agreement over the JPA (which has already been extended once), are unlikely to succeed given the varying interests of the actors involved (P5+1). What this tells us is that the more interconnected the international system becomes, a single state’s actions become diluted and less effective. Even in the case of the US.

Image: Secretary Kerry Poses With Iranian, E.U., and Oman Ministers Before Trilateral Negotiations in Muscat About Future of Iran’s Nuclear ProgramU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the European Union, and Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawai of Oman before the U.S., Iran, and the E.U. began three-way negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

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