Weapon of mass starvation?
Then, just as communism was collapsing, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The invasion unified the United Nations (which was usually divided along ideological lines) against Iraq. Consequently the security council imposed what it said was the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, requiring all members of the UN to block all trade with Iraq, except for food and medicine.
The goal of the sanctions was to convince Saddam to leave Kuwait but they were continued after the first Gulf War over concerns, subsequently shown to be baseless, that he was developing weapons of mass destruction.
To gain public support for lifting sanctions that were strangling his budget, the Iraqi government fabricated data suggesting that sanctions-induced malnutrition had claimed the lives of half a million children. Claims of causing civilian suffering were also made about the sanctions imposed on Haiti after the military coup that ousted the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
This started the campaign for targeted sanctions. Previously, sanctions were applied haphazardly to entire economies with little thought for how they would affect the innocent civilian population. But the idea that sanctions designed to constrain ruthless despots were actually killing some of the very people they were meant to protect caused a sea change. Sanctions went from focusing on general prohibitions on imports and exports to focusing on asset freezes and travel bans of dictators and their henchmen.
But the effectiveness of this sort of sanctions have yet to be demonstrated. Autocrats are typically clever enough not to open accounts in their own names at banks under the jurisdiction of governments that are likely to sanction them. Nor are they often interested in vacationing in hostile territory, preventing these sanctions from having any bite.
SWIFT and severe
Nonetheless sanctions were being called upon to deal with the US and the EU’s most pressing foreign policy concerns, including preventing the Iranian government from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That’s when the western powers realised the leverage they really had.
International sanctions on Iran, which particularly targeted the country’s oil exports, have been instrumental in bringing the country to the negotiating table.
While the US did little direct trade with Iran, international financial transfers for almost every country in the world ran through the SWIFT financial network, headquartered in Belgium. If Iranian banks were cut off from SWIFT it would be much more difficult for Iran to receive payment for its oil.
On 23 March 2012 the Council of European Union ordered Iranian banks disconnected from the service and the Iranian economy went into freefall. Nonetheless it took over three more years for Iran to agree to a nuclear deal.
Fast forward 10 years later and these sanctions and more have not (yet) been able to bring a peaceful resolution to this horrific war.