How Sanctions Feed Authoritarianism
Past experience shows that economic pressure does change societies—but it mostly facilitates hardliners. Iran’s regime may be next.
The United States has a long history of intervening overseas to solve one problem and inadvertently creating others. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration armed rebels fighting Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government only to find that some of them later targeted the United States. During that same decade, America armed the government of El Salvador in a gruesome civil war against leftist rebels that spawned the migration that produced the now notorious gang, MS-13.
It’s worth remembering these precedents as the Trump administration prepares to reimpose sanctions on Iran as part of its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. American politicians and pundits have spent the last month debating whether those sanctions will make Iran more or less likely to build nuclear weapons. What they’re largely overlooking is what impact years of additional sanctions will have on the country Iran becomes.
The academic literature is clear: Far from promoting liberal democracy, sanctions tend to make the countries subject to them more authoritarian and repressive. In 2009, University of Memphis political scientist Dursen Peksen found that, between 1981 and 2000, sanctions contributed to a significant erosion of human rights in the countries on which they were imposed. The following year, in a study co-authored with the University of Missouri’s Cooper Drury, he found that sanctioned countries grew less democratic too.
The reason is that sanctions shift the balance of power in a society in the regime’s favor. As sanctions make resources harder to find, authoritarian regimes hoard them. They make the population more dependent on their largesse, and withhold resources from those who might threaten their rule. “Because the regime can intervene in the market to control the flow of goods and services made scarce by foreign economic pressure,” Peksen and Drury write, “the leadership will redirect wealth toward its ruling coalition and away from its opponents to minimize the cost of sanctions on its capacity to rule.”