Stop! – Or We’ll Say Stop Again!

So by now we’ve all heard the news that North Korea has conducted a third underground nuclear explosive test, and according to early indications, this one is a significant improvement in terms of yield over the first two. I won’t get into all the speculation about the type of warhead (uranium or plutonium) or its size (whether improved in miniaturization or other features). I’m sure that will be the topic of discussion over at Arms Control Wonk.

To me, what comes to mind is how this is yet another illustration of how misplaced Western governments’ trust has been and continues to be in the power of economic sanctions, whether multilateral or unilateral, to address nuclear weapons proliferation concerns.  It also brings home yet again how misguided the UN Security Council’s strategy has been in dealing with both North Korea and Iran.

The empirical facts about economic sanctions, and the unlikelihood of their success in changing target state behavior in the manner desired by those applying the sanctions, is fairly well documented in existing academic literature and studies. See here, here, and in a piece I wrote about Iran a while ago.

Make no mistake, international sanctions can certainly affect the target state and its economy, and make its citizens’ life a misery. This is certainly happening in both North Korea and Iran. But that’s not the same thing as actually affecting the target state’s behavior in the manner desired, particularly in the context of high politics and security issues like nonproliferation. This is just primal, schoolyard psychology people. If a bully on the school playground orders you not to do something – or else – and if you have any backbone at all, your immediate, natural reaction is to say screw you and do it anyway. Who are you to tell me not to do it? I’ll do it just to show you I can and that you can’t stop me. And its all wrapped up in pride and saving face, and all that just primal psychological stuff that we all know well from our days on the playground and that, at the end of the day, explains so much about international relations – much moreso in my opinion than grand-looking quantitative modeling done by our friends in political science departments (I did a PoliSci MA and was never convinced of the validity of most of the quantitative explanatory work done in the field of international relations theory. Maybe more on that another time).

Rouzbeh Parsi put it well at a conference I recently attended, when he said that international economic sanctions have far more to do with the sanctioners than with the sanctionee.  They serve a cathartic purpose for the sanctioning states, so that they can say themselves and to their friends and constituents, that they are doing something about the commonly perceived problem.  I honestly think that most high level foreign policy makers know deep down that the sanctions programs they keep outwardly relying on in cases like North Korea and Iran aren’t going to work. They just don’t have any other politically realistic options for expressing to their various intended audiences – mostly consisting of each other and of their domestic political constituencies – that they are trying to do something, and are not allowing the target to “get away” with its bad behavior.

The problem is, of course, that the target keeps getting away with its behavior, and actually seems to do more of the behavior the sanctioners don’t like, in order to show the sanctioners that the sanctions aren’t working. Remember the kid in the schoolyard? So what do the sanctioners do? The only thing they can do – you guessed it – apply more sanctions. And the cycle repeats itself.

I’ve always thought of the UN Security Council’s handling of these two cases – Iran and North Korea – using somewhat interwoven mental analogies to the games of chess and poker.  In my opinion, the UNSC’s actions in these cases have shown a really unfortunate inability to look several moves ahead, as one must do in chess, in order to think through how their moves are likely to be countered by the opposing side, and then to what exactly they will do in response at each stage in order to bring their strategy to a successful conclusion (this assumes of course that they have a strategy to begin with). The decisions by the UNSC to command Iran to cease uranium enrichment, and to command North Korea not to conduct further nuclear tests, are prime illustrations of the UNSC overplaying the hand that it originally had (there’s the poker) – i.e. the power and influence that it could predictably exert over the target of their commands – and didn’t fully think through the sequence of moves by both sides that would likely flow from this play of their hand.

The result has been, essentially, that both Iran and North Korea have called the UNSC’s bluff, and now the UNSC is just standing there saying to each one of them “Stop! – or we’ll say stop again!” Unable to withdraw their commands or roll back their sanctions without losing face, the UNSC just looks more and more foolish, and more and more impotent, and their program of action more and more miscalculated, as both targets of their solemnly declared commands and sanctions continue to do exactly what they want to do, rubbing the UNSC’s nose in its inability to stop them. It didn’t have to be this way. If only the members of the UNSC had played more chess and poker.


16 Comments on “Stop! – Or We’ll Say Stop Again!”

  1. masoud says:

    Hi Dan,

    While generally a fan of your work, I think this piece is lacking.

    The point of the Iran sanctions isn’t really to acheive any meaningfull policy objectives vis a vis Iran. The goal of these sanctions is deepen the conflict betweeen the US and Iran, so as to force future US decisionmakers down the path of confrontation with Iran. The US has no problem with unsavory regimes having access to nuclear technolgy. See for instance the deals that Saudi Arabia and UAE are closing with Western countries. The US’ problem with Iran is that it won’t toe the line with regards to the US’ foreign policy machinations. The problem is that foreign machinations can change, and so in the absense of a teneble millitary campaign a subset of the US foreign policy establishment which is ideologically beholden to Israel is pushing for sanctions in order to make this conflict as deep as possible so as to preclude any chance of raprochment.

    The other members of the security council go along with the US lead for their own reasons, including but not limited to nervousness about the technological rise of third world countries, quid pro quo’s with the US in return for considerations in the areas of European missile shields, currency poliy etc.., anticpated arms deals and energy contracts, and generally speaking a positive view of an opportunity to ‘milk both sides’, none of which have anything to do with proliferation concerns.

    A similar dynamic is at play in North Korea. Without a crazy North Korean regime, the US would have no justifiactoin for it’s massive troop presence in South Korea, and would consequently have a much less distinguished balancing role vis-a-vis China on behalf Japan and South Korea. A peacefull democratic North Korea that has constructive relations with all of it’s neighbours would be an absolute catastrophe for US strategy in East Asia.

    It’s much less accurate and informative to ascribe these sanctions campaigns to the tactical incompetence in acheiving a stated set of goals on the part of the US or UNSC, rather than to coherent set of strategies towards another set of goals held by certain constituent elements of these larger institutions.


  2. Reginald Bartholomew III says:

    Can someone unpack the NK issue from a strictly legal — NPT — perspective? It is now outside the NPT. Strictly speaking, aside from UNSCRs, just from NPT: Is nuclear weaponization now legit for NK?

    • John Reynolds says:

      “Strictly speaking, aside from UNSCRs, just from NPT: Is nuclear weaponization now legit for NK?”

      North Korea is now in the same boat as Israel, Pakistan and India i.e. they aren’t bound by the NPT, and so if they want nukes then they can have them.

      There may be some residual obligations w.r.t. assistance given to North Korea when it *was* still a state party to the NPT e.g. there may be high-tech hardware that the Koreans would be legally obliged to return to the country that provided it under the auspices of the NPT, but that’s probably a fool’s errand.

      Mind you, even UNSC Resolutions aren’t “law”, precisely because the Security Council is a political organization, not a world legislature i.e. it can’t *make* something illegal, it can merely declare that some activity is Politically Unacceptable And Must Stop Immediately!!

      According to the UN Charter such a “decision” of the council must be obeyed but, hey, it’s not as if North Korea is the only country on earth to tell the SC where to stick its resolutions…..

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Hi Reginald,
      I think the best answer is that NK did successfully withdraw from the NPT. You can see my pieces on NPT withdrawal at:


      As such, they are now outside of any prohibition imposed directly by treaty or customary international law on the development and possession of nuclear weapons.

      They are under various UNSCR’s commanding them to abandon their nuclear weapons, and any related programs. UNSCR’s are legally obligatory on NK because of Articles 25 and 103 of the UN Charter, to which NK is still a party. In the sense that these comprise binding international legal obligations, you could say that they are sources of international law. I think of UNSCR’s as derivative sources of law, flowing from the primary source of the UN Charter. But I think calling them sources of law, on the whole, is correct.

      As I’ve said in many places, I think that there are limits placed by the UN Charter on the authority the UNSC has to take binding decisions. So I think that UNSCR’s have to be vetted for their own lawfulness under the Charter on an individual basis.

  3. “The problem is, of course, that the target keeps getting away with its behavior,”

    No, that’s NOT the problem. The problem is that the sanctioner is a predator/aggressor who has no business trying to change the behavior of the target, in the first place.

    The US and Israel have been operating on this deceitful tactic for over a century. Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion at least had the good grace to codify and admit the scheme. For example, asPatrick Tyler writes in “Fortress Israel,” in the early 1950s when Ben Gurion realized that Israeli settlements would not have enough water to survive, much less attract the number of aliyeh immigrants he fantasized, he instructed Israel’s military to harass and kill Syrian farmers as they tended their fields. Eventually, the Syrians defended themselves, which acts Ben Gurion labeled acts of war, which he instructed IDF to respond to with a full scale military assault. Soon, Israel controlled the Golan Heights water resource.

    US and UK are not even that honest. As Flynt Leverett commented in a discussion of his book, “Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” :

    “In the United States, culturally we have thought at least since Woodrow Wilson that unless we can basically make the rest of the world … look like us, we can’t really be safe or secure. We also think that deep down other people really want to live like us so by trying to engineer these outcomes we are doing humanity a favor. .. When there’s ample evidence that …this is not congruent with reality, we have a very hard time correcting course, because correcting course is going to mean ideational change, cultural change for us, and that’s really really hard.”

    In thrall to this Wilsonian ideation, Israel, and the US (and UK) have perfected the scheme: when they want control of someone else’s resources, or when they think they know better how another people should rule themselves, as Israel and US have known since at least the Wilson administration, then they haul out the provoke-provoke-provoke-kill-‘cry victim’-invade-wage war-conquer scheme.

    The behavior that needs to be changed is that of the bully/sanctioners. In most if not all instances over the past century in which the scheme has been deployed, the Target has been the more-or-less innocent kid in the playground who had the bad good fortune of industrial might, or control of strategic territory, or possession of resource wealth.

    The problem is NOT that the “TARGET keeps getting away with its behavior,” but that the BULLY keeps getting away with its behavior.

  4. The real “target” of the sanctions isn’t Iran — it is the policymakers in the US. The point of the sanctions is to box them into a set policy which is intended to lead to conflict. Each time sanctions are passed, it becomes politically more difficult to for anyone in the US to do an about-face on Iran policy. The only politically-viable option is to increase the sanctions, not to back down from them, lest you be accused of being “soft on Iran.” And since continued sanctions are obviously not going to resolve the issue by themselves, at some point “sanctions enforcement” tips over into outright hostile conflict. That’s the plan, and the Obama adminsitration is already well down this pathway. If anything, the recent nomination confiormation hearing is evidence enough of how far along we are on this path.

    But aside from that Iran and North Korea should not be compared to each other. Lets remember that N Korea blocked inspections, kicked out inspectors, and proceeded to build a bomb. Iran, in contrast, suspended their enrichment program entirely for about 2 years, has allowed all the inspections it is legally required and for a while allowed more even more intrusive IAEA inspections than what was legally required, and has since repeatedly offered to place additional restrictions on its nuclear program well beyond any legal obligations, and even US intelligence agencies admit that there is no indication that the Iranians are interested in making nukes.

    • yousaf says:

      thank you.

      I hope you will write an OpEd somewhere on this.

      I especially like your fresh take: “The real “target” of the sanctions isn’t Iran — it is the policymakers in the US. The point of the sanctions is to box them into a set policy which is intended to lead to conflict. Each time sanctions are passed, it becomes politically more difficult to for anyone in the US to do an about-face on Iran policy. The only politically-viable option is to increase the sanctions, not to back down from them, lest you be accused of being “soft on Iran.” ”

      Well put.

    • Bibi Jon says:


      There’s a dichotomy here which is difficult to unpack. Are the sanctions aimed at eventual use of force, or is the threat of force a marketing ploy to make draconian sanctions palatable?

      Stephen Walt writes:

      “…neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them.”

      He explains the tactic:

      “Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by “framing effects,” and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third — an even more expensive camera with even more features — the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible “compromise” choice.”



      Personally, I find amateurism in chess/poker to be an inadequate explanation. If one desperately wanted to nudge a very reluctant NK (and Iran) to develop nuclear weapons, surely you would do as the US is doing: pile on insecurity, isolation and demonization upon the target. Who knows, perhaps it is Dan who’s not reading the moves far enough. A nuclear NK is much more of a headache for China, than it is for the US who’ll soon claim justification to station defensive measures in SK.

      • Both. I suppose that the authors of the sanctions policy would prefer and outright confrontation between the US and Iran, but would settle for a protracted standoff in which Iran suffers from sanctions. But even then sanctions are seen as just stepping stones towards an eventual conflict.

        Regarding “framing effect” — you can see that clearly in the propaganda about Iran promoted in the Western media, which regularly present the issue as a false choice between bombing Iran or accepting a nuclear-armed Iran. There is no consideration of a third way: Iran is left to pursue a perfectly legal and IAEA-monitored nuclear program, just like Argentina and Brazil etc., and nobody bombs anybody else. That option, apparently, is just beyond the pale and not open for any consideration.

  5. Rene says:

    I agree with Cyrus and Bibi’s takes on Dan’s comments. I have another point to add: ultimately, the sanctions are neither for the sanctioner’s policy makers nor for the sanctionee. They are for other countries that are watching. It’s telling them “don’t dare go down this path, or we’ll break your neck.” And I think this strategy is overall effective. If Iran had developed an enrichment program free of immense pressure, many other “Third World” countries (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.) would have wanted the same. But breaking Iran’s back makes those very cautious. Similarly, the general (non-nuclear) point is to punish recalcitrant states, so as to warn others contemplating disobedience. “Look at Iran; they dare resist our policies, we’ll hold them by their genitals. Beware! Whosoever else dares resist us, we’ll do the same to him!”

    And again, I think it works. That’s why the US can isolate Iran, because other countries are afraid of the consequences of disobeying the Emperor.

    • Absolutely. The Iran-US nuclear standoff has several contexts, and one of them is the North-South conflict over control of the full nuclear fuel cycle. This broader conflict pre-dates the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, though Iran is being used to set an example for other developing nations that consider a domestic nuclear program.

      Right now, the business of commercial uranium enrichment is totally dominated by a few countries, acting through 5 companies intended to ensure the supply of fuel to these countries. Three of these companies are under direct state ownership or the equivalent: the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) in the USA, Rosatom in Russia, and Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL). The other two (URENCO and EURODIF) are international consortia formed by several European governments, and both were intended by European countries to maintain an autonomous enrichment capability for themselves. In effect, they want to dominate the business of manufacturing nuclear reactor fuel — the sole major energy source of the near future — whilst preventing other countries from developing this same technology.

      And yet at the same time the US has been pushing since the days of Carter (but more under Bush) to limit the number of other nations that can have enrichment. They’ve tried various ruses to justify such a claim, going as far as to say that Article IV of the NPT is really nothing more than a “loophole” which needs to be closed. A 2004 analysis by the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies states:

      “Many NPT state parties, particularly those from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have already stated their opposition to President Bush’s proposals to restrict enrichment. In their view, precluding states from developing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities contradicts an important tenet of the NPT-that is, the deal made by the nuclear weapon states (NWS) to the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Article IV of the NPT states that NNWS have the inalienable right to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, a right intended to provide an incentive for NNWS to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Bush proposals, however, introduce another element into the nonproliferation regime by segmenting countries into those that can engage in enrichment and reprocessing and those that cannot. Since most states with fuel cycle capabilities are from the developed world, it is clear that the target group of the proposal is the developing world.”


      Well, those developing nations aren’t taking this lying down, which is why they have repeatedly backed Iran at the Non-Aligned Movement conference. In fact it seems to me that the US proposals to limit enrichment are themsevles motivating other countries to hurry up and develop the technology, lest they end up in the newly-created “cannot enrich” category of countries, making them permanently reliant on those 5 companies.

      Nor is this an idle concern by the developing nations. Note that right after the US and friends signed the NPT which (under article IV) recognizes the right of non-nuclear armed countries to obtain technical assistance with their civilian nuclear programs, the US and friends formed an “extra-legal” informal group known as the NSG or the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and they amongst themselves started making lists of the technologies that they agreed they would *not* share with other signatories, ostensibly to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons but the other nations have long complained that this was just a pretext, and that in effect the NSG has formed a cartel on nuclear technology that violates the letter and spirit of the NPT.

      The Final Document of the United Nations General Assembly resolution S-10/2 which was adopted at the 27th plenary meeting of the tenth special session on 30 June 1978 stated in paragraph 69:

      “Each country’s choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel-cycle policies”.

      This language was reiterated in the final document of the 1980 NPT Review Conference and has been consistently reiterated in every Review Conference since then, including the 1995 Review Conference , the 2000 NPT Review Conference and in the Final Document of the 10th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2002.

  6. I agree with Cyrus. The reality is that the US ruling elites – not to mention Israel – want a war with Iran. That’s just a given. It’s absolutely true.

    The sanctions are just the run-up, a check box on the road to war, and a means of degrading the target country in advance of war.

    And that’s true of North Korea as well – with the exception that the US can’t afford to attack North Korea at this point because the massive US casualties – estimated at fifty thousand in the first ninety days – are too excessive for the US electorate to accept absent a direct military threat to either the US or Japan.

    So with regard to NK, the US just wants it to implode in order to cause headaches for China and hopes eventually the US will be able to get troops and spies stationed on China’s borders. China, on the other hand, views NK as a major irritant but has to continue to support it precisely because it knows what the US wants to do – put troops and spies on its borders.

    So NK remains a stalemate for both sides, while NK itself tries to push and squirm and get some aid from both sides in order to keep limping along with its regime. But it can only do that making itself a significant nuisance – and that’s why it has a nuclear weapons program, however useless that program is strategically and tactically. But of course paradoxically this merely reinforces the hostility of the outside world and makes it even less likely to get economic aid.

    No one ever underestimated the stupidity of the human species.

    North Korea is just a proxy battle between the US and China, just as Iran is just a proxy battle between Israel and the Arab world – with the additional proviso that the US ruling elites stand to profit from an Iran war whereas they will not profit from a war with NK.

    Which is why there won’t be a war with NK – “there’s no oil there” is part of it – at least until the US electorate can be conned into accepting one, as they have been with Iran, because the casualties would be too high.

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