University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Linda Gerber-Stellingwerf

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis, the United States has imposed sanctions against Iran on a continuous basis. The initial measures were moderately influential in resolving the hostage crisis, when combined with intensive diplomatic efforts. But sanctions on Iran have not been successful in changing the behavior of Iran’s leadership. And they have done nothing to reverse Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


After the release of the hostages, the United States did not lift sanctions against Iran. Instead, it sustained and strengthened sanctions during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and further reinforced them through the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in the mid-1990s.

The goals of U.S. sanctions are to end Iran’s support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, gain Tehran’s endorsement of the Middle East peace process, and prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction. Iran has steadfastly refused to discuss these topics, however, until sanctions are lifted and the United States returns billions of dollars of financial assets that were frozen in 1979.

Bolstered by its oil wealth and natural gas reserves, the Iranian economy has continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace, despite U.S. trade and investment sanctions.

In the meantime, because U.S. sanctions are unilateral, Iran has been able to continue trade with other countries. Bolstered by its oil wealth and natural gas reserves, the Iranian economy has continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace, despite U.S. trade and investment sanctions. In 2001 the Atlantic Council issued a report concluding that sanctions were not achieving the desired policy results and were an obstacle to the realization of U.S. interests in Iran. The council strongly recommended that the U.S. government lift sanctions on Iran and pursue normalized diplomatic relations. However, any hopes for such a change in U.S. policy were dashed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration’s subsequent labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil.”


In 2006, at the behest of the United States and in response to Iran’s failure to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the U.N. Security Council imposed multilateral sanctions. The council demanded that Iran suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and address IAEA concerns about possible military connections to its nuclear program. When Iran refused the U.N. demands, two subsequent rounds of sanctions were imposed in 2007 and in 2008.

U.N. sanctions have been very modest. They consist of targeted financial sanctions and a travel ban on a list of designated individuals and entities associated with Iran’s nuclear program. While U.N. sanctions have the potential to be more effective because they are multilateral, and Russia and China in particular have substantial investments in Iran’s energy sector, the measures have been too limited to inconvenience the regime significantly, and have not persuaded Iran to abandon uranium enrichment activities.


Neither U.N. multilateral sanctions nor U.S. unilateral measures have had much impact on Iran. Sanctions by themselves are rarely able to bring about substantial policy change. They are most successful when coupled with incentives, as part of a diplomatic bargaining process. In Libya, U.N. sanctions combined with incentives-based bargaining were successful in dissuading the Gaddafi regime from supporting terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction. In Iran, by contrast, ineffective U.S. sanctions and weak multilateral measures have failed to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Without a compensating package of inducements, continued sanctions will only perpetuate the stalemate.

Linda Gerber-Stellingwerf is a co-director of the Sanctions & Security Research Program, based at the Kroc Institute and the Fourth Freedom Forum.