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Sanctions Can’t Spark Regime Change

The Trouble With Trump’s Approach to Venezuela and Iran

Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley at a Security Council meeting in New York, September 2018 Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

In the last several decades, financial and economic sanctions have become a key tool of U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration has made particularly heavy use of this tool, especially in its efforts to induce regime change in Venezuela and Iran. On March 21, for instance, National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted that unless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro relinquishes power, “he and his cronies will be strangled financially.” The next day, the White House announced sanctions against one major Venezuelan bank and four of its subsidiaries, stating that the United States “will continue to take steps to pressure Maduro, his regime, and those who support him, until they step out of the way and allow a democratic transition to occur.”

And although the administration has been more oblique in its call for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical regime, the demands it has issued to Tehran are so onerous that, as former U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill has argued, they are “effectively impossible for Iran to accommodate without fundamentally changing its leadership and system of government.” U.S. President Donald Trump, in other words, “is requiring regime change in Iran without calling it that.” On April 22, the United States took the latest step in this direction by announcing that it would refuse to issue waivers allowing other countries to purchase Iranian oil—an effort to drive “Iran’s oil exports to zero,” according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. The Venezuelan and Iranian people surely deserve better governments, and such a change would serve U.S. interests. But the Trump administration’s use of sanctions in this pursuit will probably fail. Moreover, it will likely weaken the force of sanctions as a U.S. foreign policy tool.

HOW SANCTIONS WORK

Used properly, sanctions can help persuade a target to change its behavior. But for sanctions to work in this manner, they must be aimed at behavior that the target can, however reluctantly, change. The targeted party must also believe that sanctions will

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