By Barry Rubin

It never ceases to amaze me that people–including professors of political science, international affairs experts, and journalists–never seem to understand what sanctions are about. They think that the only purpose of sanctions is to get the other side to change its behavior. Obviously, that’s preferable but it is also hard.

When Iran, Syria, North Korea, or Cuba don’t transform themselves, legions of–how can I put this politely–not very wise people proclaim that the sanctions have failed and thus should be abandoned.

No, that misses the point. There are at least three other major purposes that sanctions serve.

First, and most important, is to deny the enemy resources that it can use in being stronger and thus more threatening. By denying the above-mentioned countries military equipment, money, and other things it makes it harder for them to attack and slows down their development of weapons and forces.

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Thus, for example, while Iran still sponsors terrorism, tries to subvert other countries, and so on, its ability to do so is reduced.

Second, the goal is to discourage others from helping and being allies of that country by showing it to be a risky and more unprofitable enterprise. This does not mean total success but it does, for example, discourage business deals, investments, and diplomatic or political support among those who can be dissuaded.

Third, it encourages dissident forces within the country who decide that the regime’s (or a faction controlling the regime) is following policies that are too dangerous or unprofitable. Obviously, this can take many years to bear fruit.

And all of this gives rise to a fourth factor: removing sanctions can convince an enemy that it is winning, make it more arrogant and aggressive. After all, it has won a victory without making any concessions. Why shouldn’t it–and other observers–conclude that this is a result of its own strength and the other side’s weakness? If the president of the United States apologizes, why shouldn’t this be taken as proof that America was wrong all along? If he switches to a soft approach, the other side will conclude that the United States has been beaten and now must negotiate the surrender terms.

Whether or not that’s how pundits in London, Paris, and Washington think, that is sure how they view the world in Tehran, Damascus, and Pyongyang.

For a democratic nation, a key assumption is whether the enemy state can be changed through negotiations, compromises, or concessions. In the 1970s, for example, Egypt was ready to change from the Soviet to the Western camp. Similarly, China had good reason to split with the USSR and respond to the diplomacy of President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

When a state is dominated by a strongly ideological regime, or when the regime’s interests are served by an aggressive policy, and when a government feels it is winning, these are not times when it is likely to be moved by concessions and engagement.

When George F. Kennan formulated what was in effect the U.S. policy of sanctions toward the Soviet Union in 1946, he also stated that the time would come when this very pressure would bring about change in the USSR. He was right–but it took forty years to work.

For reasons that would take some time to explain–but are analyzed in detail by my books as for example The Truth About Syria–Syria, Iran, and North Korea are not ripe for change. It makes sense to continue sanctions, even if they don’t produce total success in a short period of time.

To argue that if Iran’s regime is still pursuing nuclear weapons, supporting terrorism, sabotaging Arab-Israeli peace, attacking U.S. interests, and subverting neighbors this proves that sanctions haven’t worked misses the point. Without sanctions, Tehran would only be doing all these things far more effectively.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to