sanctions don’t promote democratic change

Come July, Iran’s oil will no longer flow to Europe, thanks to an EU embargo announced on January 23. That same day the United States approved sanctions on the country’s third largest bank, Bank Tejarat, which the Treasury Department says “has directly facilitated Iran’s illicit nuclear efforts.” Twenty-two other Iranian banks face U.S. sanctions.

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change

Additional research is needed on the apparent inverse correlation between broad economic sanctions and democratization. The existing data, however, suggest that states and indigenous pro-democracy groups should be cautious about using economic sanctions as a tool in their struggles against authoritarian regimes. The data not only show that dictatorships faced with sanctions tend to enhance their grip on power, but also that successful cases of democratization have overwhelmingly occurred in the absence of broad economic sanctions. While the evidence may present an inconvenient reality for national legislatures poised to use sanctions to look tough and appear to “do something”—regardless of the actual consequences—indigenous pro-democracy groups should have no illusions about the impact of broad economic warfare on their prospects.

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