Monday August 6, 2018
by Carol Morello
President Trump holds a memorandum that reinstates sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on May 8. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
February was a typically busy month for U.S. officials who announce government sanctions.
package of measures issued by the Treasury Department targeted North
Korea, with dozens of ships, companies and other entities cited for
shipping coal and fuel to the country in violation of previous sanctions.
Before the month was over,
sanctions had also been slapped on Colombian drug traffickers,
smugglers of Libyan oil and individuals accused of sex abuse and
recruiting child soldiers in Congo.
sanctions rained down on abettors of various terrorist groups in
Pakistan, Somalia and the Philippines, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon. And
the State Department added to its list of designated terrorist groups
organizations in the Philippines, West Africa, Bangladesh and Burkina
Most months nowadays, the United States
issues a similar barrage of sanctions, as the Trump administration
pursues an aggressive strategy of using economic tools instead of
military might against foes.
The sanctions that attract the most attention have
been aimed at governments threatening U.S. national security interests,
including North Korea, Iran and Russia. But increasingly, sanctions are
being used to counter other kinds of destabilizing behavior. Sanctions
have been around since the earliest years of the United States, but
they have been used more frequently since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
They are seen as a potent tool to cut off terrorists and their
financiers from access to the international financial system, as well as
a way to crack down on human rights abuses and corrupt leaders.
the reliance on them has led to concerns that they are being overused
as the foreign policy of first resort, hurting U.S. credibility among
allies who complain that they are being forced to bow to U.S. policies
and potentially undercutting the U.S. dollar.
'Extremely seductive' tool
officials dismiss the criticism, saying they have proved effective in
convincing nations like Iran and North Korea to agree to negotiate their
nuclear weapons programs.
doubt, we are strategic and thoughtful about how we deploy these
tools,” said Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial
intelligence at the Treasury Department, citing human rights and
corruption cases as areas where sanctions can change behavior. “When you
think of the atrocities happening, and you know leaders are trying to
steal the wealth of their citizens, how can you not cut them off from
the financial system?”
According to an analysis by the law firm Gibson Dunn,
the administration blacklisted nearly 1,000 people and entities last
year. That is 30 percent more than were added in President Barack
Obama’s last year in office, and tripling the number blacklisted during
his first year.
“Being designated under
sanctions is the economic equivalent of the death penalty,” said Judith
Alison Lee, co-chair of the firm’s International Trade Practice Group
“It is so seductive for any administration to use sanctions, because
they don’t require any prior notice, they don’t require any judicial
review and they’re effective immediately. For this particular president,
with his personality, it’s extremely seductive.”
officials say that using sanctions as a foreign policy tool when
diplomacy won’t work has countered a growing number of threats.
looking at sanctions where they’re appropriate,” said a senior State
Department official involved in sanctions, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity to explain the strategy. “And they happen to be appropriate
in a lot of places in the world right now because of the threats we see.
. . . It’s the world that we live in today, where we see a lot of
opportunity. We see a lot of threats. We have interests in a lot of
different places. And we have this toolbox that we walk around with.”
sanctions are the most powerful in the world, largely because so many
international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in U.S.
dollars. Once wielded like a sledgehammer, sanctions are now being
applied more precisely against people who might change their behavior
once their assets are frozen, such as an accountant for a drug kingpin.
Critics say the expansion of sanctions by the administration and Congress threatens to undermine their effectiveness.
In a 2016 speech, former treasury secretary Jack Lew cautioned against their overuse.
“Sanctions overreach,” he said, risk pushing businesses away from the
U.S. financial system, and could erode the power of the dollar as the
Some say the United States is already well into overreach territory with the list of individuals and entities sanctioned running more than 1,100 pages. It is possible to be delisted, but far more names are being added than subtracted.
Tensions with Europe
frustration among many U.S. allies over the use of sanctions could make
it more difficult to form coalitions like the multilateral consensus
that brought Iran to talks about its nuclear program. Down the road,
critics say, it could cause some nations to look for alternatives to the
Relations between the United
States and Europe are expected to come under a strain when the first
nuclear-related financial sanctions suspended under the 2015 Iran deal
are restored on Monday, as President Trump ordered when he withdrew from
the agreement in May.
The Europeans —
including France, Britain and Germany, three of the countries that
negotiated the deal alongside the United States — consider the agreement
vital to their security and have vowed to abide by their commitments
despite the U.S. withdrawal. That is setting the stage for a
confrontation if Washington imposes secondary sanctions on European
businesses that continue to operate in Iran, as is allowed under
European law. But as U.S. officials warn of robust enforcement, many
foreign businesses already have started to close shop in Iran.
tension is likely on Nov. 4, when other U.S. sanctions will be
reimposed that prohibit oil purchases from Iran, which form the backbone
of its economy. That could nudge Iran into withdrawing from the deal,
the Iran case, the United States is damaging sanctions as a tool of
statecraft,” said Kelsey Davenport, an Arms Control Association analyst
who supports the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action (JCPOA), in which Iran limited its nuclear program in exchange
for sanctions relief.
“The United States has
put a lot of states between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “They’re
obligated by the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the deal to
support the JCPOA. But they have the U.S. threatening to impose
penalties if they don’t abide by U.S. sanctions. It has aggravated the
Sanctions usually work well only when allies cooperate, experts say.
the only country in the world that has sanctions against Cuba,” said
Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American
Security. “Every other country has business with Cuba. Canada and the
European Union made it unlawful to boycott Cuba because of U.S.
sanctions. It’s not effective unless it’s multilateral. The United
States can withdraw from the JCPOA, but unless it uses secondary
sanctions it’s not going to have a big effect.”
Ten Republican senators recently warned in a letter
to the ambassadors of Britain, France and Germany that their
governments could face “prompt congressional action, in coordination
with other elements of the U.S. government, to ensure their integrity”
if they defy U.S. sanctions on Iran.
also has fiercely embraced sanctions as a foreign policy tool,
particularly when members have thought the president wasn’t clamping
down hard enough. One milestone was the overwhelming passage in 2010 of
expanded oil sanctions against Iran. Last year, Congress voted 98 to 2
in favor of a bill called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through
Sanctions Act. It targeted Russia, Iran and North Korea by expanding
punitive measures previously put into place under executive order.
A weapon not just for the U.S.
United States is not the only country to seize on economic tools to
advance foreign policy. Norway, for example, prohibits its huge
government pension plan from investing in U.S. companies involved in
producing or maintaining nuclear weapons.
Kittrie, an Arizona State University law professor who wrote the book
“Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War,” said the United States is more adept
at imposing cutting-edge sanctions than it is at defending U.S.
companies from sanctions imposed by adversaries.
a fan of sanctions,” said Kittrie, who also is a senior fellow at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They’re a way of achieving
policy objectives at minimal cost, economically and in lives. It’s a lot
cheaper to use sanctions than it is to drop a lot of bombs on a place.
They’re not going to go away. But they need to be used more judiciously
in light of the fact they’re using this against the United States.”