The Efficacy of Sanctions vs. The Efficacy of Doing Nothing

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One problem I have with the ongoing Iranian sanctions debate is that it's really a two-way argument being had by three competing factions. On one side you have the proponents of sanctions—a halfhearted and quasi-invested bunch at best—and on the other, you get the anti-Iran sanctions crowd tag teaming with the anti-sanctions always crowd.

The latter are often inclined to remind those of us in the pro-sanctions crowd that sanctions never, ever work, and then proceed to lay out a laundry list of sanctions gone awry. The problem with this argument is that it conflates 2009 Iran with 1986 South Africa (where sanctions were somewhat effective) and 1962 Cuba (not so much). All three of these—along with all the other historical examples—serve as unique case studies on the efficacy of sanctions.

And there's a fine debate to be had over whether or not some array of 'smart sanctions' can work, or if sanctions that circumvent the UN entirely and focus instead on Western banks and insurers would be more effective. Do you establish a multitiered set of sanctions pegged to concrete dates, or do you throw a 'grand bargain' on the table with the option of global isolation or acceptance? Does the threat of force remain on the proverbial table?

A debate over these options strikes me as pretty reasonable, and I think the pro-Iran sanctions and anti-Iran sanctions factions will continue to have that conversation in the coming days.

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