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Congress strikes Russia sanctions deal
02:06 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

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David A. Andelman: Congress is proposing much-deserved sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia

But sanctions alone won't bring change, since they're only a single thread in a complex web of international diplomacy, he writes

CNN  — 

Congress is about to vote to impose a new round of sanctions on three nations that unquestionably deserve them – North Korea, Iran and Russia. Each has, in its own way, violated some of the most basic norms of international behavior.

Sadly, it is unlikely their bad behavior will in any fashion be corrected by even the most draconian turns of the diplomatic or economic screws.

As a rule, sanctions generally make those nations or groups that invoke them feel far better than any pain that might be inflicted on their target, which often takes years to bite. Worse yet, all too often sanctions target the poorest and most vulnerable of these nations’ citizens.

Twenty-six times since 1966, sanctions of one form or another have been imposed on nations by the UN Security Council – 16 in Africa, four in the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Yemen), one each in Europe (Yugoslavia) and the Americas (Haiti), one in Asia (North Korea) and three terrorist organizations (ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban). Thirteen sets of sanctions are still in force.

And then there are any numbers of similar embargoes, travel bans, investment divestitures and other more or less punitive measures that have been ladled on nations – from Syria and Israel to Russia and South Africa – without formal Security Council censure. Few of these efforts, with or without formal UN backing, have led to outright regime change, let alone any substantial modification of their behavior.

Now Congress is about to impose new sanctions on three countries, which have long learned to live under sanctioned regimes. And even if they haven’t been able to prosper fully, they haven’t devolved into chaos and revolution.

Even before the congressional vote on new Russian, Iranian and North Korean sanctions was cast, Russia protested, warning such an action would, in the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, be “counterproductive” and “harmful.” Russia has been sensitive to certain, targeted sanctions – particularly the Magnitsky Act, which was aimed at specific Russians believed to be directly responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who’d been getting a little too close to fraud involving senior Russians. In response, Russia banned adoptions by US parents in 2012.

In Iran, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the new Congressional sanctions as a potential violation of the treaty that bars Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for 10 years. Meanwhile, North Korea continues full steam ahead in its development of an intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered to its target.

In short, none of these countries have shown very much willingness to dramatically transform their behavior. The reason is that sanctions themselves are only a single thread in a complex web that is necessary to achieve any of the desired results.

For sanctions to be effective, they must be accompanied by several other elements.

First, patience is essential. Sanctions are not a switch that can be flipped to create a sudden and transformative impact. Some sanctions may take years to mature. Just consider South Africa, where at least a decade passed following the imposition of strict economic sanctions before apartheid came to an end. In that time frame, some 90 cities, 22 counties and 26 states, as well as innumerable colleges and universities, had taken some measure to divest themselves from companies doing business in South Africa. At the moment sanctions truly began to bite, Mandela was released from prison and democracy emerged.

Second, companies must be prepared to respect the sanctions or, at a minimum, phase out business ties. Yet there is little evidence that Western businesses, which have reaped windfalls from the Iran nuclear treaty and the ability to begin selling aircraft to or buying oil from Iran, are prepared to pull up short.

Boeing sold more than $3 billion worth of planes to Iran within months of the lifting of the last series of nuclear-related sanctions. And, according to the Washington Post, a number of Western oil companies continue to operate in and around Russia, and some US firms are still be able to do business there.

Third, there must be a firm understanding of just what a lifting of sanctions could mean. Iran was especially anxious to shed the most onerous sanctions, agreeing to the nuclear pact in part because its frozen assets were suddenly freed but also because the agreement returned a degree of respect to an ancient civilization, allowing thousands of its citizens to travel and study abroad.

The new sanctions imposed by Congress will have little or no impact as long as they are not recognized and duplicated by America’s allies or partners. In the case of Iran and Russia, none has expressed any interest in following the US lead. In the case of North Korea, China remains the central outlier, with little apparent appetite to change the status quo.

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    But above all, any sanctions against a regime must be accompanied by adroit and consistent diplomacy. There is little evidence this is embedded in the new sanctions program. Sharp disagreements persist between the White House and State Department over whether the Iranian nuclear agreement should be respected or a whole new wave of sanctions imposed. There also appears to be little coordination between President Trump and his European counterparts over tough and coordinated sanctions on Russia.

    An understanding of the complex interplay of financial mechanisms, trade and diplomacy, plus a willingness to accept that the United States cannot stand alone, are essential if the latest round of sanctions will prove to be any more than another empty gesture.