When Is It Time to End Sanctions Programs?

How Washington Should Plan for Their Eventual Removal

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during their meeting in Caracas, August 2016.  Carlos Garcia Rawlins / REUTERS

At the end of August, U.S. officials imposed new sanctions on Venezuela following the government’s crackdown on both the opposition and the country’s democratic institutions. The measures marked the fourth major expansion in U.S. sanctions programs this summer. (The others were against Iran, North Korea, and Russia.) With each set addressing different security threats, sanctions have been dubbed the “Swiss army knife of U.S. foreign policy” by the scholar Robert Kahn. Yet at a time when Washington has so many such programs in place, determining how best to wind down sanctions is perhaps more important than discussing when and how to impose them. If U.S. leaders want to use sanctions to change their targets’ policies, they need to plan for their eventual removal. Otherwise, Washington will lose credibility during negotiations and limit the mechanism’s effectiveness.

Sanctions have become popular with U.S. policymakers in recent years thanks to their success in changing Iran’s behavior. First implemented against Iran in 1996 but significantly stepped up between 2010 and 2012, U.S. sanctions helped shrink GDP by nine percent between 2012 and 2014, depress the value of its currency, and deepen its unemployment rate. Those effects convinced Tehran to enter into negotiations over its nuclear enrichment program. Successes such as this have encouraged U.S. officials to use so-called smart sanctions—or highly targeted sanctions programs against specific individuals, entities, and transactions as opposed to broader, less-focused programs—which leverage the United States’ primacy in the global financial system to shut down targets’ ability to do business. The most recent U.S. programs build on this success. Each, however, fails to offer a road map for its own end, a potentially fatal flaw.


Without clear goals, the United States risks enshrining sanctions indefinitely and making negotiations fruitless. The sanctions imposed on Russia in August 2017 are the worst among the new programs in this respect. Lawmakers’ desire to block President Donald Trump from unilaterally lifting the sanctions led them to create

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