The Other Side of the Sanctions Equation

By Bryan Cassella

Our understanding of the effectiveness of sanctions regimes, which were once seen as simple and straight-forward strategies to apply pressure on target states, has evolved with the successes and failures of past attempts. Similarly, implementation schemes have become more complex with the development of dedicated state infrastructure and political mechanisms for introducing, enforcing, and removing sanctions. Research on the factors that contribute to the success of sanctions is still relatively new, and it remains unclear how the characteristics of the target state affect the results. Until we have a better understanding of how states under sanctions react to the threat and imposition of sanctions, we won’t know when sanctions are likely to be effective.

Sanctions scholars have predominantly focused their research on two areas: the sanctioning country (sender) and its role; and types of sanctions and how they are constructed, executed, and enforced. While the context and condition of the target’s environment is sometimes alluded to in passing, analyses tend to only discuss limited components of that environment while focusing on the sender and its capabilities. There needs to be a more expansive look at the target-level factors that may affect the implementation and outcome of imposed sanctions.

Using standards from the Targeted Sanctions Consortium (TSC) Dataset, which identifies the types of actors that are coerced, constrained, or signaled to through sanctions regimes, this piece starts to fill the gap in the existing literature. The types of actors include entire government entities, government leadership, leadership family members, rebel factions, all parties to a conflict, terrorist groups, facilitators of proscribed activity, individual targets, key regime supporters, domestic constituencies in a target country, regional constituencies, and global constituencies.

Figure 1 lists the relevant target factors across varying perspectives in the sanctions literature and sorts them into four general categories: socio-political, economic, historical, and perceptive. Almost all of the factors listed are interconnected. These factors can be important not only because they affect the immediate impact of sanctions, but also because they shape how target countries respond.

Figure 1: Target Factors of Consideration when Facing the Imposition of Sanctions

While sanctioning countries often observe, understand, and prepare for some of these factors when imposing sanctions, this piece seeks to highlight a number that do not receive as much attention as they should.


As seen in Figure 1, there are a number of important socio-political factors that motivate the target’s response, including the presence of alliances, third parties’ retributive capabilities, the level of domestic political instability and political opposition within the target state, the degree of executive autonomy, and the social and political costs of behavioral change.

Of these, a critical factor is the target’s sense of sovereignty and national identity. From the perspective of the sender country, sanctions are sometimes touted as less of a threat to a target’s sovereignty than direct interventions. As such, they can be framed as an acceptable alternative to the use of force. At the same time, the sanctions on Cuba and North Korea, for example, highlight how sanctions can still be effective in impeding states’ capabilities to support their populations. It is thus not difficult for these targets to characterize sanctions to their populations as an intervention by external enemies. As seen in Iran, this can enable the country’s political elite to resist external pressure and create a defensive narrative of “countering an outside aggressor.”

The domestic costs of changing policy to comply with demands from a sanctioner can be a significant motivator or deterrent when responding to sanctions. Policies and activities related to state defense, such as military drills and nuclear weapons programs, tend to be more difficult to dislodge given strong domestic support. Israel is a clear example of a case in which internal political will is strongly determinative of state actions when confronted with opposing international pressure.


The major economic factors targets must consider include the diversity of their assets, the level of foreign political aid, and the effectiveness of compound sanctions on their economic, political, and military sectors.

Take, for example, the sanctions imposed in response to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The United States and European governments imposed a schedule of economic sanctions, combined with the termination of communications with high-level political officials. This two-pronged effort to induce a policy change in China represents a coordinated multi-target sanctions program that nonetheless had little effect on the target state given its economic resilience.

Additionally, states may be able to redirect economic costs, not just through economic and trade reorganization, but through the punishment of local opponents. In the cases of both Iraq and Rhodesia, political leaders implemented targeted policies to offset the impact of sanctions by diverting intended costs to non-aligned and marginalized groups, namely the Kurdish and Shia populations and the black workforce, respectively.


Discussion and consideration of historical context in constructing sanctions regimes has been limited. Factors such as previous histories of sanctions, pre-existing relations with the sender, and remembered histories of colonialism and subjugation can have a significant impact on the target’s response and the effectiveness of the sanctions themselves.

Regional pressure and the history of local relations are also important considerations when developing sanctions packages. Often times, regional bodies have shared histories and social similarities that enable more productive engagement and coercion. Whether through economic, political, military, or social means, multinational regional groups, such as the African Union, the Organization of American States, ASEAN, or the Arab League, have greater potential to achieve the goals of sanctions and can serve as a powerful mediator between the target and sender. These groups, in some situations, can also help offset the target’s perception of being subjugated by the sender, granting greater legitimacy to the sanctions and attenuating autonomy and sovereignty concerns.


This category encompasses factors associated with how the target perceives its environment, which can have a significant impact on the target’s response.

Perceptive factors can be grouped into two main categories: first, the target’s perception of its domestic situation; and, second, the target’s perception of the senders’ intentions, capabilities, and plans for future interactions. As in most conflicts, both intra- and inter-state, the perceptive capabilities and means of communication between parties, miscalculation, expectation, and credibility all influence the dispute’s outcome. After the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, the Libyan government initially resisted foreign pressure to extradite two potential suspects. The government believed the United States held the ulterior motive of deposing the Qaddafi regime and that caving to international demands would not result in the lifting of sanctions.

The target’s understanding of its own political, social, and economic situation is highly relevant to the outcomes of its decision-making processes. Factors such as the expectation of risk, the understanding of the root causes of unrest, and the perceived stage of violence, instability, or public approval, are some of the most relevant.

In addition, a target’s knowledge of the sender, whether through historical context, political relations, or current events, shapes what it considers to be the most likely expected actions and its own best possible response. In 1979, the Canadian government misjudged the potential fallout of moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and was forced to withdraw the decision after Arab League members made significant economic threats. Reduced or absent communication will more likely result in actions and statements from all sides of the sanctions relationship that are ill-advised, misguided, or ineffective.

For both the sender and target, actions and reactions reflect not just perceptions of past and present interactions, but also anticipation of the future. Predictions of international political and economic relations as well as domestic contexts in each country will drive a target’s willingness and ability to either succumb to or resist sanctions programs.


Understanding the target environment is essential when states or the international community are considering whether and how to impose a sanctions regime. While the sender and broader global contexts are both vital parts of the sanctions equation, target-level elements can lead to the offsetting, reduction, or even elimination of intended effects.

The socio-political, economic, and historical backgrounds of a target are integral in understanding how it might react to the imposition of sanctions. But when information and communication are lacking, parties must also recognize the importance of perception and prediction and how a target will calculate its response.

As the reliance on sanctions as a tool of statecraft continues to grow, sanctions research must incorporate more detailed analysis of domestic and international settings to produce better predictions and explanations of target responses. Through more balanced and detailed examinations of all components and actors involved in a sanctions regime, sanctions architects will be able to inflict the smallest possible amount of residual harm while achieving their intended goals.

Bryan Cassella is a MALD candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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