- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2019

The foreign minister of Iran. A former Zimbabwean general. The stepsons of the president of Venezuela and their Colombian business partners. Four top officers in the Venezuelan military counterintelligence directorate. Two former Iraqi provincial governors. A North Korean munitions official stationed in Vietnam. The government of Russia.

That’s just a partial list of the countries, companies and individuals targeted by the Trump administration for economic sanctions in the past half month, a reflection of the U.S. government’s increasingly heavy reliance on punitive sanctions to advance foreign policy goals. It’s also a sign, critics say, of overuse of the sanctions tool and increasingly diminishing marginal returns.

Analysts fear a sanctions saturation could lead to stronger “antibodies” from those targeted. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the target of Trump administration sanctions and a freeze on U.S. assets last week, took the designation almost as a compliment while noting that he had no assets in the U.S. for the government to freeze.

“Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda!” the minister tweeted.

The proliferation of U.S. sanctions — one recent count put the total at just under 8,000 — started long before President Trump, and the prospect of being frozen out of the giant U.S. economy or banking system can be a potent deterrent for some. But a rising number of analysts fear the sanctions spear is being dulled from overuse and being wielded too often for lack of other diplomatic options.

“Sanctions are a tool as part of a larger policy framework, and the challenge has been that we have used sanctions so much they have become a substitute for our policy,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Sigal Mandelker, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, defended the power of sanctions at a CSIS briefing on the topic last week. Sanctions, she noted, come in many forms: travel bans, arms embargoes, asset freezes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions and trade restrictions.

Since Mr. Trump took office in 2017, nearly 190 sanctions actions have been announced against more than 2,600 individuals, governments and other entities. The administration has issued scores of advisories and $1.3 billion in civil monetary penalties so far in 2019 alone.

Ms. Mandelker said sanctions can serve a real purpose as part of a larger, coordinated pressure campaign, such as those that have targeted the leadership of Iran and Venezuela since Mr. Trump took office.

“Sanctions alone will rarely, if ever, comprise the entire solution to a national security threat or a human rights or corruption crisis,” said Ms. Mandelker. “Every time we utilize these tools to disrupt that flow of money, we keep our country safer.”

She cited the specific sanctions targeting Iran’s leadership and its top military organizations, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued repeatedly that the U.S. sanctions have choked off Iran’s ability to fund its proxies and allies hostile to the U.S. and Israel across the Middle East, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The Iran sanctions are working and the U.S. “will enforce them everywhere,” Mr. Pompeo said on a visit to Bangkok for a regional summit Friday.

But Jon Alterman, CSIS’s director of the Middle East program, said the proliferation of sanctions can be a sign of policy drift.

“There has been an effort to use sanctions when you’re not really sure what to do,” he said.

Growing popularity

The U.S. has engaged in trade embargoes almost from the founding of the country, but the modern era of sanctions dates to World War II. U.S. and allied sanctions on imperial Japan helped set off a chain of events leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s campaign to seize the resource-rich Dutch East Indies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the first executive order authorizing sanctions the day after Adolf Hitler invaded Denmark in April 1940, calling on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to freeze Denmark and Norway’s assets in the U.S.

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, sanctions were primarily used as a method of protection and embargo. Since then, they have been employed more aggressively, as a “new normal” approach to block financial institutions from aiding hostile actors, express policy differences and change bad actors’ behaviors.

After 9/11, officials of the George W. Bush administration argued that sanctions were perhaps the best way to choke of the financing of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that needed to use the international financial system to bankroll their operations.

But the imposition of sanctions that began under Mr. Bush has only accelerated under his successors.

“We have used this very powerful sanctions tool in lieu of policy, and sometimes we just simply turn to sanctions because we want to do something,” Ms. Conley said.

The Obama administration marked a major increase in sanctions, particularly with a campaign in 2010 to pressure Iran to agree to talks on its nuclear programs.

Ironically, Mr. Trump has garnered a reputation for an aggressive sanctions policy in part by restoring many of the sanctions President Obama put into place and then rescinded after Iran signed the nuclear deal in 2015. When the U.S. officially pulled out of the agreement in November, the Treasury’s office of foreign assets control reinstated some 700 sanctions on Iranian “individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels” in a single day.

Both sides of the debate cite the case of Russia, where the Obama administration and European allies imposed heavy economic sanctions on Moscow after the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. More sanctions were imposed after Western governments blamed the Kremlin for orchestrating the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain.

The Russian economy has been hobbled, but President Vladimir Putin has shown no signs of bowing to U.S. pressure. The Kremlin has spoken instead of “decoupling” from the international financial system and developing replacement businesses at home.

European governments that oppose Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have set up a separate financing mechanism specifically designed to end-run U.S. sanctions. In the face of rising tariffs threatened by Mr. Trump, officials in China last week also floated the idea that it was time to decouple the Chinese and U.S. economies.

But sanctions supporters say the European experiment with Iran only underscores the power of the sanctions tool. Despite intense efforts, few companies and banks appear willing to risk the threat of being shut out of the U.S. market for the opportunity to do business in Iran.

Ms. Conley said U.S. sanctions can be a powerful talking point for hostile governments looking to rally domestic support, as governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran have done.

“Sanctions as a tool are no substitute for overarching policy, and we have been missing in action on policy frameworks for a long time now,” she said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide