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Trump administration’s use of sanctions draws concern

President Trump holds a memorandum that reinstates sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on May 8. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

February was a typically busy month for U.S. officials who announce government sanctions.

One package of measures issued by the Treasury Department targeted North Korea, with dozens of ships, companies and other entities cited for shipping coal and fuel to the country in violation of previous sanctions.

Before the month was over, sanctions had also been slapped on Colombian drug traffickers, smugglers of Libyan oil and individuals accused of sex abuse and recruiting child soldiers in Congo.

More sanctions rained down on abettors of various terrorist groups in Pakistan, Somalia and the Philippines, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon. And the State Department added to its list of designated terrorist groups organizations in the Philippines, West Africa, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.

Most months nowadays, the United States issues a similar barrage of sanctions, as the Trump administration pursues an aggressive strategy of using economic tools instead of military might against foes.

The sanctions that attract the most attention have been aimed at governments threatening U.S. national security interests, including North Korea, Iran and Russia. But increasingly, sanctions are being used to counter other kinds of destabilizing behavior.

Sanctions have been around since the earliest years of the United States, but they have been used more frequently since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are seen as a potent tool to cut off terrorists and their financiers from access to the international financial system, as well as a way to crack down on human rights abuses and corrupt leaders.

But the reliance on them has led to concerns that they are being overused as the foreign policy of first resort, hurting U.S. credibility among allies who complain that they are being forced to bow to U.S. policies and potentially undercutting the U.S. dollar.

'Extremely seductive' tool

Administration officials dismiss the criticism, saying they have proved effective in convincing nations like Iran and North Korea to agree to negotiate their nuclear weapons programs.

“No doubt, we are strategic and thoughtful about how we deploy these tools,” said Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, citing human rights and corruption cases as areas where sanctions can change behavior. “When you think of the atrocities happening, and you know leaders are trying to steal the wealth of their citizens, how can you not cut them off from the financial system?”

According to an analysis by the law firm Gibson Dunn, the administration blacklisted nearly 1,000 people and entities last year. That is 30 percent more than were added in President Barack Obama’s last year in office, and tripling the number blacklisted during his first year.

“Being designated under sanctions is the economic equivalent of the death penalty,” said Judith Alison Lee, co-chair of the firm’s International Trade Practice Group “It is so seductive for any administration to use sanctions, because they don’t require any prior notice, they don’t require any judicial review and they’re effective immediately. For this particular president, with his personality, it’s extremely seductive.”

Administration officials say that using sanctions as a foreign policy tool when diplomacy won’t work has countered a growing number of threats.

“We’re looking at sanctions where they’re appropriate,” said a senior State Department official involved in sanctions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the strategy. “And they happen to be appropriate in a lot of places in the world right now because of the threats we see. . . . It’s the world that we live in today, where we see a lot of opportunity. We see a lot of threats. We have interests in a lot of different places. And we have this toolbox that we walk around with.”

U.S. sanctions are the most powerful in the world, largely because so many international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in U.S. dollars. Once wielded like a sledgehammer, sanctions are now being applied more precisely against people who might change their behavior once their assets are frozen, such as an accountant for a drug kingpin.

Critics say the expansion of sanctions by the administration and Congress threatens to undermine their effectiveness.

In a 2016 speech, former treasury secretary Jack Lew cautioned against their overuse. “Sanctions overreach,” he said, risk pushing businesses away from the U.S. financial system, and could erode the power of the dollar as the pre-eminent currency.

Some say the United States is already well into overreach territory with the list of individuals and entities sanctioned running more than 1,100 pages. It is possible to be delisted, but far more names are being added than subtracted.

Tensions with Europe

The frustration among many U.S. allies over the use of sanctions could make it more difficult to form coalitions like the multilateral consensus that brought Iran to talks about its nuclear program. Down the road, critics say, it could cause some nations to look for alternatives to the U.S. dollar.

Relations between the United States and Europe are expected to come under a strain when the first nuclear-related financial sanctions suspended under the 2015 Iran deal are restored on Monday, as President Trump ordered when he withdrew from the agreement in May.

The Europeans — including France, Britain and Germany, three of the countries that negotiated the deal alongside the United States — consider the agreement vital to their security and have vowed to abide by their commitments despite the U.S. withdrawal. That is setting the stage for a confrontation if Washington imposes secondary sanctions on European businesses that continue to operate in Iran, as is allowed under European law. But as U.S. officials warn of robust enforcement, many foreign businesses already have started to close shop in Iran.

More tension is likely on Nov. 4, when other U.S. sanctions will be reimposed that prohibit oil purchases from Iran, which form the backbone of its economy. That could nudge Iran into withdrawing from the deal, too.

In Iran, economic worries grow as new U.S. sanctions loom

“In the Iran case, the United States is damaging sanctions as a tool of statecraft,” said Kelsey Davenport, an Arms Control Association analyst who supports the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which Iran limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

“The United States has put a lot of states between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “They’re obligated by the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the deal to support the JCPOA. But they have the U.S. threatening to impose penalties if they don’t abide by U.S. sanctions. It has aggravated the animosity.”

Sanctions usually work well only when allies cooperate, experts say.

“We’re the only country in the world that has sanctions against Cuba,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Every other country has business with Cuba. Canada and the European Union made it unlawful to boycott Cuba because of U.S. sanctions. It’s not effective unless it’s multilateral. The United States can withdraw from the JCPOA, but unless it uses secondary sanctions it’s not going to have a big effect.”

Ten Republican senators recently warned in a letter to the ambassadors of Britain, France and Germany that their governments could face “prompt congressional action, in coordination with other elements of the U.S. government, to ensure their integrity” if they defy U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Congress also has fiercely embraced sanctions as a foreign policy tool, particularly when members have thought the president wasn’t clamping down hard enough. One milestone was the overwhelming passage in 2010 of expanded oil sanctions against Iran. Last year, Congress voted 98 to 2 in favor of a bill called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. It targeted Russia, Iran and North Korea by expanding punitive measures previously put into place under executive order.

A weapon not just for the U.S.

The United States is not the only country to seize on economic tools to advance foreign policy. Norway, for example, prohibits its huge government pension plan from investing in U.S. companies involved in producing or maintaining nuclear weapons.

Orde Kittrie, an Arizona State University law professor who wrote the book “Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War,” said the United States is more adept at imposing cutting-edge sanctions than it is at defending U.S. companies from sanctions imposed by adversaries.

“I’m a fan of sanctions,” said Kittrie, who also is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They’re a way of achieving policy objectives at minimal cost, economically and in lives. It’s a lot cheaper to use sanctions than it is to drop a lot of bombs on a place. They’re not going to go away. But they need to be used more judiciously in light of the fact they’re using this against the United States.”