The Mindless Harm of Economic Sanctions

American politicians love to hurl economic sanctions at disfavored governments, but the current labyrinth of sanctions is so complicated that it has unintended consequences, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

U.S.-imposed economic sanctions often have been misdirected and counterproductive, but a new sanctions-related development involving Iran is especially illustrative.

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

First, some background. Iran has been a favorite target of American politicians who use sanctions as a vehicle for expressing disapproval for a regime, with little apparent thought about the actual effects of the sanctions. Since the entering into force of the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which in the eyes of most governments successfully resolved the issue of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, the United States has been alone among major powers in continuing to sanction Iran.

The sanctions that the United States has piled on Iran for years have become so extensive and complex, and the penalties for violation so severe, that many American companies have erred on the side of caution by forgoing business opportunities in Iran even more than is legally required. The fear of God, or rather of the U.S. Treasury Department, has made them wary of inadvertently stepping across some unclear line.

The new development is that Apple is attempting to shut down apps developed by Iranians for use on iPhones inside Iran. The sanctions prohibit Apple from selling its phones in Iran, but millions of the popular devices have been smuggled into the country from places such as Dubai and Hong Kong. Hence the market for apps that Iranians find useful, such as an Uber-like ride-hailing service known as Snapp. Apple is removing Iranian-developed apps, including Snapp, from its App Stores. The company issued a message to Iranian developers in which it attributed the move to “U.S. sanctions regulations.”

That Apple’s move is the result of an abundance of fear and caution is indicated by Google taking a different tack. Google has done…

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