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Iran sanctions: playing the long game

Iran has endured three decades of US sanctions. Have they worked? Yes and no.

This article is part of a special report on the impact of sanctions on Iran's economy. For the main story, go here

Iran has been under one form or another of US sanctions for more than 30 years. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, which saw 52 Americans held hostage in the country for 444 days, the United States seized extensive Iranian assets, the first iteration of financial restrictions that have only expanded in the decades since.

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The eventual release of the hostages, on the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, in some ways marked the high point of successful sanctions against Iran. Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had promised to release about $8 billion of the seized money in exchange for the hostages' safe return.

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In the decades since, one sanction after another has piled up, with a sharp impact on Iran's economy but little to show in the way of intended results. The US Department of the Treasury currently lists 34 executive orders and US laws that limit the financial activities of Iran and those who do business with the country. The latest round of US and international sanctions, passed this year, have gummed up the country's ability to sell crude oil, sending Iran's currency (the rial) to record lows and freezing its banks, including its central banks, from the routine transactions that make global commerce possible.

This may eventually break the country's will to pursue its nuclear enrichment program, which it insists is for peaceful purposes only.

But Iran's traditional response to financial restraints has been defiance, and upping the ante. Consider 1984. When the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, were bombed by a Shiite militia in October 1983, killing 241 American soldiers and marines, the Reagan administration determined that Iran had played a role. In response, it added Iran to a list of countries that support terrorism and banned the export to Iran of "dual use" goods – items that could have a military use.

Did Iran end ties with groups the US deems terrorists? Far from it. It became a major adviser and financial supporter of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that emerged as Lebanon's most potent political movement. And it has become a major financial backer of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that now governs the Gaza Strip.

In 1992, President Bill Clinton signed the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act, which promised sanctions for any government or individual who assisted Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That was the first tentative step toward the 10 major rounds of sanctions since.

Yet Iran's nuclear program has still crept forward. Have sanctions "worked?" It depends on how you define success. There have been pe-riods in which Iran granted greater access to inspectors from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency. Its nuclear work has certainly been dramatically slowed by sanctions. And war has been avoided.

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But if judged against a standard of "has Iran's nuclear work been reversed, or halted," then the answer is no.

Have sanctions worked in other cases? The answer to that is a qualified yes. Saddam Hussein abandoned his nuclear weapons program after Iraq's economy was ruined by the heavy sanctions regime that followed the Gulf War. But he also sought to conceal the extent of his compliance, apparently believing that without ambiguity, his country would be more likely to be invaded. Invaded it was, in 2003 – only after were sanctions lifted.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi gave up the scraps of his moribund nuclear program in 2003, as the US geared up for war with Iraq. US and international sanctions were swiftly lifted. Whether Mr. Qaddafi regretted this decision in his final days in 2011, as NATO planes pounded his forces and assisted the successful rebellion against his rule, is not recorded.