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

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

The fall of the ruble, the impossibility of opening the Moscow Stock Exchange, the disconnection of Russian banks from the Swift communication network, the freezing of Russian assets in Europe or even their imminent withdrawal, the Russian central bank is forced to raise its key rate by more than 10 points to stop hyperinflation. .. International economic sanctions against Russia are beginning to bear fruit.

But are these often maligned economic sanctions really politically effective?

“It is expected that the sanctions will create such a degrading economic situation that they will force the population to put pressure on the leaders,” researchers Fanny Coulomb and Sylvie Matelli explain in an article published in International and Strategic Review. and articles on sanctions cast doubt on their effectiveness, most often concluding that they are ineffective.”

According to a 2012 study by the American research center Watson Institute, which analyzed 56 episodes of targeted UN economic and financial sanctions between 1992 and 2012, the desired results were achieved in 31% of cases. But this measure essentially concerns measures aimed at preventing the participation of individual states in activities prohibited by international law. As for the influence on the enemy’s policy – state or not – their effectiveness will drop to 13%.

Iran: country enriches uranium despite sanctions

American embargo in 1980, in 1995, international sanctions in 2006, then easing in 2015 under the Vienna Pact, and then the return of tough sanctions in 2018… The Islamic Republic has been under Washington’s guns for over 40 years . Iran is one of the few countries that was excluded from banking messaging platform Swift in 2012 and again in 2018 after America’s withdrawal from the Vienna Agreement. The economic consequences were real. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center, the country would lose almost half of its oil export revenues and 30% of its foreign trade. But the goal of preventing Iran from developing a military nuclear program was not achieved. In contrast, the isolated country has accelerated its uranium enrichment program and announced in 2021 that it has reached the 60% enrichment threshold, not far from the 85% needed to produce a nuclear warhead.

North Korea: without sanctions, the threat could be worse

The most sanctioned country in the world. Closed from the international community for over 70 years, North Korea is isolated from the world economic system. UN Resolution 1718 of 2006 imposes an arms embargo, an asset freeze and a travel ban on those involved in the nuclear program. The latest UN resolution 2375, adopted in 2017, reinforced them, for example, by banning the import of North Korean textiles, the supply of gas or refined oil to the country. If these sanctions did not prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons, they may have helped curb its program.

“All the levers have not yet been activated and the fight against sanctions circumvention can be stepped up, in particular from China and many African countries,” said Benjamin Hautecouverture, a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Studies in a column in Le Figaro. and who considers sanctions effective. North Korea’s programs are far from mature enough for the country to be considered a nuclear power with retaliatory capability.”

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

Libya: The current embargo is ‘completely ineffective’

The current arms embargo on Libya since 2011 is “completely ineffective”. This was stated by UN experts in 2021 in a 550-page report. The presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries, the circumvention of the embargo by Libyan supporters such as the UAE, Jordan, Russia, Syria or Egypt… Sanctions against Libya did not bring results.

Accused of supporting terrorism, Libya has been ostracized by the international community since the late 1970s, which has not stopped the country from financing terrorist attacks, such as in Italy in 1985. From 1992 (total air embargo imposed by the UN) will have more consequences . In 1999, the country extradited two of its agents involved in the Lockerbie attack, which led to the gradual lifting of sanctions in the 2000s, and in May 2006 the country was removed from the US list of states that support terrorism.

But with the repression of the Arab Spring in 2011 by the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, in 2011 the UN Security Council voted for new sanctions. The regime will fall in a few months.

Cuba: 60 years later, the embargo still exists

On February 3, 1962, President Kennedy issued an executive order imposing an American embargo on all trade with Cuba following the latter’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Which makes it the longest embargo of modern times. Lightened in the 2000s, notably with permission to sell food or drugs, it tightened up again during Donald Trump’s mandate.

The Cuban embargo is considered a failure by international observers. The original goal of overthrowing the Castro regime was not achieved. Castro (Fidel, then Raul) ruled the country continuously until 2021.

First of all, the resolution adopted by the United States in 1996 aimed at internationalizing the embargo did not have the expected effect. Nearly every state votes annually at the UN to condemn the US embargo.

South Africa: embargo contributed to the elimination of apartheid

After the Soweto riots that killed 79 people and injured 178 in 1976, the UN imposed an arms embargo on South Africa. The sanctions, tightened in 1985 and 1986 by the US, prohibit the sale of computers, nuclear technology in an apartheid country, and then the import of uranium and raw materials.

Between 1985 and 1990, half of the 1,100 foreign companies present in South Africa left the country, and the average income of residents fell annually. Added to this are calls for an international boycott and exclusion of the country from many sports competitions (from FIFA in 1963, from the first two Rugby World Cups, etc.).

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

And Russia?

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin’s country has been under fire from US and EU sanctions. Mostly travel bans for several people and the exclusion of Russian banks from access to European loans.

Obviously, the sanctions adopted in recent days are disproportionate. If Bruno Le Maire foresees the collapse of the Russian economy, the country potentially has something to hold on to. In recent years, Vladimir Putin has succeeded in deleveraging his country, and the Russian Central Bank has $250 billion in foreign exchange reserves, enough to finance imports for 5 to 6 months. Not to mention hydrocarbon revenues, which have been skyrocketing for days now.

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

“It has been explained for some time that the real new weapon of Western international politics is economic sanctions. We are in an asymmetric conflict here: some use a military tool, others have deterrence based largely on economics, summarized in L’Esprit. Public on France Culture Bertrand Bady, Professor at Ceri de SciencePo. Can it work? It is very rare in history that there is a conflict of rationality between the two protagonists.”

Frederic Bianchi