Economic sanctions are in the news, of course, with the continuing
enquiry into the AWB bribes-to-Saddam scandal – which should be enough
to remind us of what a dodgy tactic they can be. But they are also
being discussed as live policy options: possible sanctions against
Nepal’s embattled monarch; sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian
Authority; and of course the threat of sanctions to try to combat Iran’s
program of uranium enrichment, which the neocons assure us is part of a
plan to produce nuclear weapons.

A good time, then to stop and think about what sanctions are supposed
to achieve. Just like law-and-order measures in the ordinary criminal
law, they tend to be imposed as a knee-jerk measure. The question that
gets asked is “Do these countries (or criminals) deserve punishment?”,
rather than “What will this punishment actually achieve?” Pierre
Rousselin, an op-ed writer in Le Figaro, put it well last
Saturday: “In Palestine as elsewhere, economic sanctions can’t succeed
unless they are accompanied by a policy. They can’t substitute for it.”

But that is exactly the problem with Iran. No-one has explained how
sanctions are going to help; so far, the threat of sanctions seems to
have just made the Iranians more recalcitrant rather than less. Maybe
well-targeted sanctions can be effective, but the case has yet to be
made out.

The example of western relations with Iran’s occasional ally, Hamas, is
certainly not encouraging. The withholding of financial aid certainly
made sense as an expression of pique. But as policy, its objective was
never clear. Wiser heads advised that aid should be continued on a
provisional basis to give the new government an opportunity to show
some moderation. As Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group put
it earlier this month in The International Herald Tribune,
“Adopting such an approach has nothing to do with endorsing Hamas’s
ideology or previous conduct, and everything to do with devising a
realistic policy to deal with a real problem. It entails assessing
whether Hamas is prepared to transform rather than assuming it cannot.”

Sure enough, Hamas now evidently feels it has nothing to lose, as shown
by its failure to condemn this week’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Le Figaro‘s
editorial yesterday pointed out that since the sanctions had already
been used without success, they couldn’t be imposed again: “The West
reacted vigorously when the ballot box spoke. When terrorism kills, it
contents itself with verbal protests.”

If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran also comes to feel that it has nothing to lose, the results will not be pretty.