Sanctions are working in Iran. They’ll work better against North Korea, and here’s why.

Drag a modest grant check through DuPont Circle and you’ll accumulate at least ten pundits, several dozen grad students, and a multitude of assorted kooks who would willingly write you an academic paper entitled, “Why Sanctions Never Worked.” And that’s true, except for South Africa, Yugoslavia, Burma, Nauru, Al Qaeda, Iran, and North Korea, and only if you limit the argument to trade sanctions and exclude other tools of economic pressure, like coordinated divestment, third-party financial sanctions like those in Section 311 of the Patriot Act, or targeted money-blocking sanctions like those in executive orders 13,382 and 13,551.

The notable counter-example is Iraq, which was willing to let its people and infrastructure suffer while it survived on oil smuggled through Turkey. But the sanctions against Iraq were old-fashioned trade sanctions, and it’s not hard to understand why they failed.

Because trade is mainly decentralized, it is difficult to regulate and control. The finance on which trade depends, however, is centralized–around the U.S. dollar, U.S. financial institutions, and the financial district of New York City–the Treasury Department’s power to restrict the access of bad actors to the global financial system by regulating U.S. financial institutions has emerged as a key tool of global U.S. power. That’s especially true in an age of weariness about the use of military force. Washington is only coming to terms with the potential power of these new legal and financial tools.

Sanctions also require unity of effort. They can only work as part of a comprehensive strategy that may include military deterrence, carefully monitored humanitarian assistance, law enforcement, financial regulation, industry liaison, information operations in the targeted country, and tough-minded diplomacy with the targeted country, domestic opposition, and third countries. They don’t work if they’re at odds with these other tools of national policy. The State Department’s failed 2007 deal with North Korea, which threw away the very leverage that made that deal possible, is an ideal example of this.

At almost every meeting aimed at getting the North Koreans to halt their nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has demanded that the United States lift its penalties against Banco Delta Asia. This week the Russian government asked the United States to remove the sanctions against the bank, too. [New York Times, Jan. 18, 2007]

Now we know it worked against North Korea, but not long ago, we were told it wouldn’t work against Iran. This 2007 New York Times report quotes a skeptical eurocrat, who explains why the financial sanctions that devastated North Korea’s palace economy and exceeded even Treasury’s expectations would never work against Iran:

The United States has tried to apply similar pressure on Iran in recent years without as much success. The size of Iranian oil exports and the country’s deeper integration into the international financial system make it much more difficult to isolate.

“It is not so easy with Iran, but it has shown great effect on North Korea,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday.

That an EU official would hold this view shouldn’t have been surprising. Europe has long resisted the use of financial pressure against rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism. Some of its influential banks and businesses enjoy cozy relationships with them. But there was a sound basis for the skepticism in the case of Iran, which unlike North Korea, has a diverse economy. It sells oil, of course, but also automobiles, carpets, fruit, pistachios, carpets, and other things that people want to buy. Diverse economies are harder to isolate than those whose links to the global financial system are fragile.

Harder, but not that hard, as we learn from a Times report this week:

In repeated meetings during the week, Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the government’s financial condition was far more dire than the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had let on.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif did not publicly specify the severity of the cash squeeze. But Western economists believe the crisis point may be much closer than previously thought, perhaps a matter of months. Iran news outlets have reported that the government owes billions of dollars to private contractors, banks and municipalities. [N.Y. Times]

What happens in a few months? The businesses and government agencies that have lost their export markets, and that have no domestic customers left, that have been running at losses for months, and that employ most of Iran’s workers will run out of credit and savings. They will have to lay off their workers. Iran’s streets will be full of the unemployed. Most of those people, if asked, would probably say that they want Iran to have nuclear weapons. By a stronger margin, however, they will say they would rather have jobs. When their voices are heard in Iran’s streets and when the regime knows it can’t pay the forces it will need to crush them, diplomacy with Iran will have a chance to work.

It won’t work quite this way in a society as terrorized, physically stunted, and psychologically scarred as North Korea’s. But eventually, the men with guns won’t be able to make up their margin of survival by preying on peasants. They will have to prey on each other.

For a more fulsome explanation of why we can isolate North Korea financial without the cooperation of (and even despite the active resistance of) China’s government, I’ll turn to this Times review of Juan Zarate’s book, Treasury’s War (which I downloaded today):

The genius of Section 311 is that Treasury doesn’t do anything other than apply a financial “scarlet letter.” The actual damage is done by the bank’s peers, which typically refuse to do business with it out of fear that they, too, will be cut off from the financial system. Just the threat of a 311, Mr. Zarate writes, has caused nations as powerful as Russia, and as recalcitrant as Myanmar, to change their money-laundering laws, forcing their banks to conform to international standards. A handful of well-placed 311’s, he says, has put much newfound pressure on governments including North Korea and Iran.

“Geopolitics is now a game best played with financial and commercial weapons,” Mr. Zarate writes. “The new geoeconomic game may be more efficient and subtle than past geopolitical competitions, but it is no less ruthless and destructive.”

The centerpiece of the book, and probably the best example of Section 311’s uses and limitations, is the story of Treasury’s assault, beginning in 2005, on North Korea, which American officials said was involved in activities like counterfeiting and drug trafficking. Mr. Zarate describes how the United States hit one of the banks it linked to North Korea, Banco Delta Asia in Macau, with a 311.

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” He adds: “The North Koreans didn’t know what hit them.”

As the depth of its plight sank in, North Korea appeared to panic. First, it fired off a missile into the Pacific, a move that had the additional benefit of freaking out the State Department, which demanded to know what Treasury was up to. Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.”

Eventually, however, Treasury’s pressure on Pyongyang had to be lifted at the insistence of the State Department, which was far more worried about North Korea’s missiles than its bank accounts. Mr. Zarate deplores the move. “The North Koreans had expertly turned the tables” on the United States, he says. “We were outmaneuvered at the height of international pressure and gave up our leverage.” [New York Times]

If you can’t get enough of this sort of thing, here’s a Q&A with Zarate in the Wall Street Journal, and here’s a must-see video of him explaining how these new tools of financial pressure pressure work:

Stop me if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a bill in Congress now that would utilize this very strategy framework to isolate North Korea from its billions in offshore deposits and its sources of regime-sustaining hard currency until it disarms, and makes significant progress on human rights, shuts down its death camps, and allows the open and fair distribution of food aid. And also, allows us to verify these things for ourselves.

We fret constantly about North Korea. We fret that it has restarted the Yongbyon reactor, and that its centrifuges are spinning away, enriching uranium. We fret that it sells nuclear reactors and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and that it might be testing nukes for both itself and Iran. We fret that it starves its people while it blows hundreds of millions of dollars on ski lift equipment, water parks, and yachts. We fret that its new mobile missiles will be able to deliver WMDs, including miniaturized nuclear weapons, and that we won’t be able to find them all in time. We fret that it may have liquidated several thousand people from one of its its prison camps. All this fretting is the constant companion of futility–the implication that there isn’t a thing we can do about any of it.

Except that we can. We could saw the trunk out from under Kim Jong Un’s money tree overnight. A determined campaign of financial pressure would destroy the regime in one or two years. And long before that, Kim Jong Un would come to us and ask for a deal. Only this time, that pressure should only be suspended as long as the progress continues.

H.R. 1771 is the bill that would do this. It has 125 bi-partisan co-sponsors. Some of them are as conservative as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King. Others are as liberal as Jim Moran, Joseph Kennedy, and Carol Shea-Porter. You could even call it a rare example of bi-partisan agreement within a Congress that’s often bitterly (and often, unnecessarily) divided. Is your representative on that list? Is your Senator willing to introduce companion legislation?

6 Comments

  1. I hope Speaker Boehner permits a vote on a clean CR, so we’ll have Treasury bureaucrats on the job enforcing sanctions.




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  2. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has cancelled his predecessor’s annual anti-Zionist conference. Ali Akbar Dareini’s big story unfortunately repeats the old misquote of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” but Rouhani might really be interested in improved relations. We’ll see.




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