Iran, Cuba, North Korea… Do economic sanctions sometimes work?


As unprecedented Western economic sanctions begin to strangle Russia, could they contribute to the outcome of the conflict? In the past, this strategy has rarely been successful.

A collapsed ruble, a Moscow Stock Exchange unable to reopen, Russian banks cut off from the Swift communications network, Russian assets frozen in Europe and even seized soon after, the Russian central bank had to raise its key rate by more than 10 percentage points to stop hyperinflation. .. International economic sanctions against Russia are starting to take effect.

However, are these often malicious economic sanctions really politically effective?

In an article in the International and Strategic Review, researchers Fanny Coulomb and Sylvie Matelly wrote, “The sanction is supposed to create such a deteriorated economic situation that it leads the population to put pressure on leaders. In this regard, much of the work, and articles on sanctions, question their effectiveness, and they are often ineffective. concludes.”

According to a 2012 study by the American research center Watson Institute, which analyzed 56 targeted UN economic and financial sanctions between 1992 and 2012, the desired results were achieved in 31% of cases. However, this measure mainly concerns measures to prevent certain States from engaging in activities prohibited by international law. When it comes to influencing an enemy’s policy – state or not – their effectiveness will drop to 13%.

Iran: Country enriches uranium despite sanctions

American embargo in 1980, international sanctions in 1995, then easing with the Vienna Pact in 2015, before the return of harsh sanctions in 2018… The Islamic Republic has been Washington’s target for over 40 years. Iran is one of the only countries to be removed from the Swift banking messaging platform after the US withdrew from the Vienna deal in 2012 and then in 2018. The economic consequences became real. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center, the country would lose almost half of its oil export revenues and 30% of its foreign trade. However, the goal of preventing Iran from developing a military nuclear program was not achieved. Conversely, the isolated country stepped up its uranium enrichment program and announced it had reached the 60% enrichment threshold in 2021, not far from the 85% required to produce a nuclear warhead.

North Korea: Threat could be worse without sanctions

The most sanctioned country in the world. Banned from the international community for more than 70 years, North Korea has been isolated from the global economic system. UN Resolution 1718 of 2006 imposes an arms embargo, asset freeze and travel ban on those involved in the nuclear program. The latest UN resolution 2375, which went into effect in 2017, strengthened them, for example, with a ban on importing North Korean textiles, supplying gas or refined oil to the country. If these sanctions did not prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons, it may have helped to thwart its program.

“Not all leverage has yet been activated, and the fight against sanctions circumvention could be strengthened, particularly in China and many African countries,” says Benjamin Hautecouverture, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Studies, in a column in Le Figaro, and those who think the sanctions are effective. North Korea’s programs, The country is far from mature enough to be considered a second-strike nuclear power.”

In other words, economic sanctions have not prevented North Korea from having a nuclear military arsenal, but have likely limited its importance.

Libya: current ‘total inefficiency’ embargo

The current arms embargo on Libya since 2011 is “totally ineffective”. That’s what UN experts said in a 550-page report in 2021. The presence of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries, the overcoming of the embargo by pro-Libyan supporters such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Russia, Syria or Egypt… The sanctions against Libya did not bear fruit.

Accused of supporting terrorism, Libya was excluded from the international community since the late 1970s. This did not prevent the country from financing attacks as it did in Italy in 1985. It will have more impact than 1992 (the total air embargo decided by the UN). . In 1999, the country handed over two of its agents involved in the Lockerbie attack, which led to the gradual lifting of sanctions in the 2000s. In May 2006, the country was removed from America’s list of states that support terrorism.

However, with the suppression of the Arab Spring by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, new sanctions were voted on by the UN Security Council in 2011. The regime will fall in a few months.

Cuba: After 60 years of embargo, the regime is still there

On February 3, 1962, President Kennedy decreed an American embargo on all trade with Cuba following Cuba’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union. This makes it the longest embargo of modern times. This authority, which was eased in the 2000s by specifically allowing the trade in food products or drugs, was tightened again during Donald Trump’s tenure.

The Cuban embargo is seen as a failure by international observers. The initial goal, the overthrow of the Castro regime, was not achieved. Castros (Fidel and then Raul) ruled the country without interruption until 2021.

First of all, a decision taken by the USA in 1996 aimed at internationalizing the embargo did not have the expected effect. Almost all States vote annually at the UN to condemn the American embargo.

South Africa: Embargo contributed to ending apartheid

After the 1976 riots in Soweto that resulted in 79 dead and 178 injured, the UN placed an embargo on arms sales to South Africa. Sanctions tightened in 1985 and 1986 by the United States, which banned the sale of computer and nuclear technologies and subsequently the importation of uranium and raw materials in the apartheid country.

Between 1985 and 1990, half of the 1,100 foreign companies in South Africa left the country, and the average income of residents fell each year. Added to this are calls for an international boycott and calls for the country to be removed from many sporting events (from Fifa in 1963, the first two Rugby World Cups, etc.).

International pressure is forcing the government to make contact with the black population, and apartheid was officially abolished in 1991. The sanctions may have contributed to this, but South Africa was an ally of the Western powers administering the sanctions.

What about Russia?

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin’s country has come under the fire of sanctions from the US and EU. Mainly travel bans for a few and blocking Russian banks from accessing European loans.

Obviously, the sanctions that have been agreed in recent days are disproportionate. If Bruno Le Maire predicts the collapse of the Russian economy, the country has something to potentially cling to. Vladimir Putin has managed to reduce his country’s loan debt in recent years, and the Russian Central Bank has $250 billion in foreign exchange reserves, enough to finance 5 to 6 months’ imports. Not to mention the revenue from hydrocarbons, the price of which has been rising for the past few days.

But sanctions against Russia are on an unprecedented scale against such a large country, making the outcome of the conflict uncertain.

“It has been announced for some time that the real new weapon of the West’s international policy is economic sanctions. Here we are in an asymmetrical conflict: one uses military means, the others have a fundamentally economic deterrence, summarized in L’Esprit. Public Culture in France Bertrand Badie Ceri de Professor at SciencePo. Could it work? It’s very rare in history to have a clash of rationality between two heroes.”

Frederic Bianchi