Biden faces choice on Trump’s economic sanctions
13 Nov 2020

Among the foreign-policy challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden will be the question of what to do with an array of punitive economic sanctions that have been President Trump’s primary tool for confronting U.S. rivals.

Mr. Trump in nearly four years has issued 3,577 sanctions designations, imposing such penalties at a rate two-thirds higher than that during the Obama administration.

Those sanctions have pushed Iran and Venezuela into deep economic contractions, cut North Korea off from global financial and trade systems, and targeted funding networks that Bashar al-Assad has used to stay in power in Syria. And Trump administration officials have pledged to impose new measures.

Yet the weight of the world’s largest economy hasn’t brought about major new diplomatic agreements or prodded U.S. adversaries into agreeing to substantive policy changes, leading some experts and former officials to question the value of such measures as a stand-alone tactic.

The incoming Biden administration will have to sort out which sanctions to retain as leverage, what concessions to ask in return for easing some of the measures, and how to assess the lessons of Mr. Trump’s effort to use economic pressure as a foreign-policy fix-all.

“When you put sanctions on, you have to have a clear diplomatic objective, and the same applies when you take them off,” said Joseph DeThomas, a former ambassador and career diplomat who worked on sanctions issues. “That is going to be a negotiating process inside the U.S. government and with the other party.”

A spokesman for Mr. Biden’s transition declined to say how the president-elect might deal with sanctions after he takes office. As vice president during the Obama administration, Mr. Biden supported the use of sanctions to get Iran to the negotiating table, and some of his advisers have told Congress that the threat of strong Western sanctions could be an effective way to deter Russia from interfering in American elections.

At the same time, Mr. Biden has described the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran as “a bust” that backfired by prompting Iran to loosen its adherence to the 2015 nuclear accord.

Skeptics of punitive measures don’t argue that such steps aren’t useful but say they need to be combined with greater attention to diplomatic give-and-take, support from allies and other forms of pressure. Even then, success may take far longer than originally thought.

“You can cause lots and lots of economic damage, but translating that into political change is much harder,” said Richard Nephew, who was the lead sanctions expert on the team negotiating with Iran during the Obama administration. “And that’s because there’s a lot more resilience to countries and political systems than the economics would suggest.”

Trump administration officials have countered during their waning months in office that their strategy is sound but needs more time.

“There is enormous leverage right now that has been built up over a multiyear period,” said Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Iran and Venezuela policy. “And the question next year will be how to use it. And if the answer is no, we won’t use it, we’ll just throw it away…that would be a terrible diplomatic disaster.”

President George W. Bush put sanctions at the center of national-security policy, using them to obtain tough but limited foreign-policy goals.

The Bush administration used sanctions to strong-arm North Korea into negotiations by freezing out the Macau-based bank Pyongyang used to handle its international accounts. Some former Treasury officials say the Bush administration didn’t press its diplomatic leverage as hard as it could have, and North Korea has since diversified its hidden financial ties.

The Obama administration expanded and refined the use of sanctions, seeing them as a way to pursue agreements and express opprobrium short of military action. Building on Bush administration sanctions begun in 2005, the Obama administration pursued a broad pressure campaign against Iran and its oil exports.

After intensive formal and back channel talks, Tehran agreed to the 2015 accord. In that instance, the U.S. had the support of European allies, Russia and China and was also prepared to compromise: Though the accord constrained Tehran’s nuclear efforts, it also met the key Iranian demand that it be allowed to enrich uranium.

President Trump took a maximalist approach, leveling more sanctions over four years than in any other presidential term over the last two decades.

By Michael R. Gordon and Ian Talley, The Wall Street Journal, 11 November 2020

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