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Iran: Analysis from Washington -- Nothing Lasts Forever

Washington, 27 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The decision of the European Union to renew high-level contacts with Iran and to drop plans for supporting a resolution at the United Nations critical of China highlight the difficulties the international community has in maintaining any sanctions against countries, especially large and important ones.

The EU indicated that it was resuming contacts with Tehran because of what it said were significant improvements in the human rights situation in Iran following the victory of a relative moderate in the presidential elections there. And it appears to have decided to back away from a resolution critical of China on the basis of a judgment that such resolutions have little impact and may even be counterproductive.

While many human rights advocates, especially in the United States, have been disturbed by these decisions, there has been remarkably little commentary on the actions of one of the most influential groups of states on two key countries.

On the one hand, this lack of reaction appears to reflect the fact that many people in the West are currently paying far more attention to the situation in Iraq than in Iran and thus are less concerned about events in the latter.

But on the other, this lack appears to reflect even more conclusions by many people involved in the human rights community that there is remarkably little hope for most countries to stay the course with any kind of sanctions regime until the actions that gave rise to the sanctions in the first place are corrected.

There are three major reasons behind such conclusions.

First, the interests of any state or group of states include but are broader than the values of that state or states. Sanctions of the kinds that the EU has turned away from reflect genuine attachments to values, but the EU and its member countries have other interests -- economic, political, and geopolitical -- which tend to have more forceful or at least influential advocates.

As a result, these other interests often predominate particularly if they can point either to the complete failure of the sanctions or some positive change.

Second, the record of the impact of sanctions be they direct or in the form of critical resolutions by international bodies is anything but impressive. Many times, the sanctions do not have any impact at all. And sometimes sanctions may be counterproductive, leading the regime in question to behave even worse while it garners national support because of international opposition or others to exploit that regime's unhappiness for their own ends.

And third, those opposed to sanctions are prepared to fasten on to any evidence of positive change in the targeted country, noting that things there are no longer "as bad as they were" and thus arguing that engagement and praise will be more effective than maintaining a hostile front.

This argument seems particularly effective because so many people have broader interests that will be helped by dropping any sanctions regime or criticism and because of a belief in many governments that they have the ability to influence others by using carrots rather than sticks as their chief policy weapon.

For all of these reasons, supporters of sanctions are seldom surprised when governments decide to scrap them. That in itself is not all that much of a problem.

But the fact that it is so is something that those against whom sanctions are employed understand this as well means that these regimes often can continue to behave badly knowing that at the level of the nation state, such bad behavior is unlikely to have any serious consequences for them. And their knowledge of that likelihood means that the chances for improving human rights conditions around the world are far less than many now assumed.