Does economic sanctions on a country serve any purpose at all other than make the ordinary citizens suffer?

Most of the times sanctions are placed on a country which is either not democratic or less democratic. Sanctions ideally should target the government forcing them to give in to the agenda of the sanction enforcer.

However this seems to be rarely the case, the government of the country seems to enjoy same benefit as before since their expenses come from tax money, since most of these sanctioned country have totalitarian regime, the suffering of citizens doesn't affect them.

On the contrary often the innocent citizens begin to suffer tremendously as seen in Iran and this often leads to civil wars and insurgency leading to destruction of the state and society and worse living condition for its citizens then it was before being sanctioned.

The sanctioning countries are not unaware of this , so do they intentionally use it to torture the citizens to force a regime change by violence and misery?

  • 6
    I think this would largely depend on the type of sanctions. Do you have a specific case in mind?
    – yannis
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 19:00
  • @Yannis Iran or zimbambwe
    – Allahjane
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 19:56
  • 2
    The entire point of sanctions is to make the country politically untenable. Of course they serve that purpose. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 20:48
  • It also depends if everyone adhere to the sanctions.
    – Panda
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 23:16
  • To be able really answer this question it is necesary to know what is the purpose of the sanctions.
    – convert
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 11:30

3 Answers 3


Stratfor covered this in one of their podcasts last year.

Short version: sanctions can sometimes serve their purpose, BUT, more often than not:

  1. They don't work nearly as well as intended or advertised

    • Every country - especially major one - has to be on board with the sanctions de-jure in the first place.

    • Even so, some countries - or entities in them - have incentives to be on board officially but circumvent under the table.

      E.g. Turkey had buyers for ISIS-produced oil, despite official Turkish anti-ISIS stance. Iraq sanctions in 1990s had the same problem

    • They usually no more than minor inconvenience the ruling elite (even if aimed at said elite directly as was the case with Russia sanctions in 2010s); and the people who run the country rarely care about impact of sanctions on their populace.

  2. Moreover, the people imposing the sanctions know this, and mostly do so for signalling/face-value/domestic-political-purposes reasons. Basically, it's the only material way to say "We don't like THIS, short of declaring war, which most countries often prefer to avoid.


  • 2
    While some sanctions require universal consent of the international community, others do not. For example, if a particular foreign leader really likes NBA professional basketball, denying that person the opportunity to attend those games can be achieved by the U.S. acting alone.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 7:18
  • @ohwilleke - I'm not sure a minor inconvenience like that is what's understood to be a "sanction" as the term is commonly used (technically, it is, but it's not something that's likely to affect a geopolitical course).
    – user4012
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 13:52
  • I'd disagree. I've described it in a fairly flip way, but prohibiting senior individuals in a regime for getting visas to travel to your country, or permission to travel in the airspace of your country. is one of the proto-typical forms of international sanctions and can be quite effective.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:32
  • @ohwilleke - ok; THAT specific phrasing I agree with.
    – user4012
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 14:45

Not all of the purposes of sanctions are straight forward in terms of causing policy change in the target government.

Another really important purpose of sanctions is to provide an option to countries displeased with the conduct of a fellow sovereign nation to express displeasure with its policies without escalating the dispute between the nations to war.

Often it is politically necessary domestically, and in terms of communicating diplomatically with another nation to not simply do nothing in reaction to clear misconduct. Sanctions are, by definition, pretty much all of the intermediate options between doing nothing and going to war.

Even if the usual alternative to sanctions would be doing nothing, sometimes the alternative to sanctions would be war, and by providing a relief valve other than war, sanctions can still leave the parties better off even if they don't cause the policy changes which officially justify the sanctions.

Furthermore, often sanctions operate on multiple levels and work in concert with domestic political forces.

For example, sanctions on South Africa due to apartheid didn't end that system all by itself, but they probably did strengthen the position of apartheid opponents within the South African political system, and probably hurt its supporters - sometimes by means as simple as serving as a means of public shame imposed on South Africans who were traveling abroad.

Also some sanctions can be more effective than others.

For example, Mexico's response to changes in U.S. policies towards it by choosing to trade in agricultural products with countries other than the U.S. absolutely hurts U.S. farmers in a way that encourages them to urge moderation on the part of a regime that they helped put in place.

Even in a totalitarian regime, governments can't maintain their power and authority without somebody in the country who supports them, and indeed, not just one faction that supports them, but many factions that support or at least tolerate the current regime. The fact that a country does not have elections does not mean that it does not have politics that drive decision makers to make particular policy choices.

Really effective sanctions need to accurately identify points where sanctions can squeeze people and factions who can influence the policies of the current regime, whether it is totalitarian or democratic, which is something that has to be determined on a case by case basis in either situation. The sanctions that might persuade a Trump administration to act differently might very well be different than those that would have persuaded an Obama administration to act differently. Sanctions that might be effective with a totalitarian regime in Egypt might be different than those that are effective with a totalitarian regime in North Korea.

Devising sanctions is more art than science and doing it well requires an accurate understanding of the de facto power brokers with a particular ruling group at a particular time.

  • 2
    Very good answer, but I would add a few more points: sanctions can seriously undermine local military industrial complex by damaging economy it is based on, credible sanction threats work quite well, while we OBSERVE mostly "ineffective" sanctions when conflict escalated, some conflicts are fought partially for purpose of appeasing jingoistic part of society (like recent Russian invasion on Ukraine), thus damaging general economy actually perfectly serves its purpose.
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 7:18
  • 1
    "sanctions can seriously undermine local military industrial complex" A good example of this is that Ukraine was the sole supplier of parts for many key Russian weapons systems, so a Ukrainian refusal to do business with the Russian military following Russia's invasion of Ukraine has seriously undermined important parts of Russia's military procurement system, and has this effect even in the absence of broad international cooperation. Sanctions are most effective between nations that are most interdependent.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 7:23
  • Good point, but I more thought in line of strong correlation, between Russian oil windfall money reserves and aggressiveness of their foreign policy. When just because of oil price fluctuations their financial position was really weak, then they were quite peaceful. Achieving similar result through sanctions seems also possible, if there was a wider consensus to try serious ones.
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 8:56
  • I will avoid using Russia as a good example for sanctions. Despite claims of "depleted forex", it is a huge country that is self-sustainable as long as Russia government doesn't mess up their internal economy like in the 80s~90s.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 12:20

On January 16, 2016, Iran has completed the necessary steps under the Iran deal that will ensure Iran's nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful. It may fully be that economic sanctions made the major contribution to this decision of Iran.

Iran has:

  • Shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country
  • Dismantled and removed two-thirds of its centrifuges
  • Removed the calandria from its heavy water reactor and filled it with concrete
  • Provided unprecedented access to its nuclear facilities and supply chain

Here is the excerpt from the now deleted answer: "Provide one valid reason the nation of Iran even "showed up" for the now infamous Obama treaty signing if not for some amount of desperation to end the sanctions which had been imposed on it for a number of years".

So was worth trying.

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