Is the threat of sanctions a deterrent to nuclear proliferation? Academic theory suggests deterrence should hold when the potential proliferator believes the threat of sanctions is credible, when the sanctions are powerful enough to outweigh the benefits of seeking nuclear weapons, and when a government believes it can avoid sanctions by refraining from proliferating. This last part—making credible assurances—is crucial but often overlooked. As Richard Nephew puts it, if “those against whom sanctions are applied come to realize that there is almost nothing that they can do which will satisfy the demands of sanctioners,” they have little incentive to change their behavior, even if sanctions are extremely costly.
Over the last three decades, the United States has seriously undermined the credibility of its nonproliferation assurances. From Iraq to North Korea to Iran to Libya, Washington has repeatedly demonstrated that it will punish its adversaries even if they take steps to limit their nuclear programs. The longer this trend continues, the harder it will be for the United States to effectively use sanctions as a nonproliferation tool.
Early on, the biggest problem the United States faced with respect to nonproliferation sanctions was credibly threatening to use them, as it had no sustained track record of doing so. However, beginning in the 1970s, Congress began passing a series of laws that mandated penalties for countries violating nonproliferation norms, increasing the credibility of the United States’ deterrence. Since then, academic studies have demonstrated that the threat of sanctions has helped deter the spread of nuclear weapons.
But in recent years, a new problem has emerged: the inability of the United States to offer meaningful sanctions relief to countries that abandon nuclear weapons programs. Even though Iraq dismantled its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs after the first Gulf War, a crippling sanctions regime stayed in place. This mistake was compounded by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, largely based on the mistaken belief that his WMD programs were still active. At the same time as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, it also abandoned the Agreed Framework with North Korea, which had successfully frozen North Korea’s plutonium program for eight years. Although Pyongyang had violated the spirit of the deal by starting a secret enrichment program, this came after the United States had failed to live up to its end of the bargain, repeatedly delaying the promised benefits, including the easing of sanctions.
In the last decade, two additional U.S. decisions have exacerbated the problem. In 2011, Washington backed a NATO air campaign that overthrew the Qaddafi regime in Libya, only eight years after he had given up his WMD program in exchange for sanctions relief and informal security assurances. Finally, last year, the Donald Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reimposed sanctions on Iran despite evidence demonstrating their continued compliance with the agreement.
In order for sanctions to remain an effective nonproliferation tool going forward, the U.S. government must ensure that countries actually receive benefits for restraining their nuclear programs. Though political polarization and changing international circumstances will continue to pose challenges to sanctions relief, three policies are worth considering that might help ameliorate the problem:
- First, members of Congress and the executive branch should more closely consult on nonproliferation deals to create greater congressional and bipartisan buy-in. This lowers the chance that sanctions or other policies are subsequently pursued after the deal is implemented that violate these deals, further eroding U.S. credibility. While demanding that all nonproliferation deals be approved as treaties by the Senate is likely too high a bar in an era of polarization, offering Congress the chance to pass a joint resolution of disapproval may provide a useful middle ground. Such a provision was created ad hoc in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and already exists for civil nuclear cooperation agreements as per the Atomic Energy Act.
- Second, more effort should be put into ensuring that sanctions relief is prompt and meaningful in the event of a bargain. Government export credits and export guarantees could play a useful role in this regard, in addition to greater legal clarity about what sort of business is permissible post-sanctions relief.
- Finally, policymakers could prioritize nonproliferation over other bilateral disputes rather than offering sanctions relief only after behavior change in many issue areas. Sometimes, this may require lifting non-nuclear in addition to nuclear sanctions to provide greater incentive for the proliferator to restrain its nuclear program.
Taken together, these steps would increase the chance that sanctions remain a viable tool of nonproliferation statecraft in the years to come.