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Iran's nuclear program: will more sanctions work?

The EU's Javier Solana heads to Iran this weekend to offer revised US-EU incentives.

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But analysts say that past sanction efforts show modest successes and many failures – from Cuba and the rump Yugoslavia to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for years the subject of blanket sanctions.

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"Cuba has been going for 48 years and [sanctions] haven't met their core objectives" of overthrowing the regime of Fidel Castro, says Jeffrey Schott, co-author of an exhaustive survey titled "Economic Sanctions Reconsidered" at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

"Often, when sanctions are imposed, it's easy for the targeted regime to deflect the real pain from the elites to the general public," he says. "The people able to survive that the best are in leadership positions … where they can command the available resources."

One example is Panama in the late 1980s, where Manuel Noriega successfully resisted US pressure. "We had the perfect conditions to impose sanctions and to get him to crumble in the late 1980s," says Mr. Schott. "Even [then], we had to send in the Marines to achieve our goals. Sanctions failed to contribute to the solution."

Likewise, Hussein survived 12 years of sanctions, and even bolstered his power by manipulating them. Regime stalwarts were driven in flashy cars and shopped in markets that boasted 11 different brands of mayonnaise.

"The sanctions on arms and military imports had a massive impact," says Anthony Cordesman, a veteran military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Iraq's forces steadily declined [after 1991]," says Mr. Cordesman, noting that years of sanctions meant a far easier fight in the 2003 invasion. "We had tremendous success in restricting Iraq's military development [and] a massive impact on their WMD programs. But the broader sanctions … that impacted the Iraqi people were far less effective and had significant negative impact."

Indeed, by 1996, the UN reported that infant mortality due to malnutrition-related problems jumped to 5,750 per month, nearly double the highest monthly toll from insurgent and sectarian violence in the post-Hussein era.

In 1998, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned after 34 years at the UN, saying sanctions were "totally bankrupt. We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that."

US officials say they want more "targeted" sanctions that would have little impact on ordinary Iranians. But Iraq is an example of how a regime can sustain severe treatment. "The Iraq sanctions are instructive because we had the most comprehensive set of sanctions since World War II, and yet Saddam found a way to smuggle billions of dollars worth of [oil]," says Schott.

Are targeted sanctions "decisive on changing the policy of the regime? I don't see any evidence of that so far," says Schott. "There is some hardship imposed, but a lot of things get better at $135 per barrel when you are a big oil exporter."

Efforts to embargo gasoline imports to refinery-starved Iran might hurt drivers, but "my fear would be that before it got to be a big problem for Iran, they would cause a big problem for us," he adds. "Iran has the ability to countersanction us, by withholding some [oil] from export markets [so] the price goes up, they sell less, and make more money," he says. It would be the first time "the target country could bite us back."