Sanctions in the Middle East and North Africa

Sanctions in the Middle East and North Africa

History of Sanctions in the Middle East and North Africa

For decades, the United States utilized sanctions as an economic tool against hostile state actors. It sought to threaten global regimes deemed antithetical to US values and interests. Sanctions maintain a notoriously consistent presence in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, intimidating the region’s economic prosperity. Regional scholars and experts lament that the sanctions do not achieve what it intends: to halt governmental injustices and generate peace. As of 2023, the United States actively sanctions Iran and Syria. However, its impacts extend far beyond the two countries, with sanctions placed in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen in the recent past. This resource guide initially examines and contextualizes the historical roots and contemporary impacts of sanctions in Syria and Iran, concluding with a collection of sources centering on the remaining countries.

Visit the Office of Foreign Assets Control for a list of sanction programs and country information active within the past two years. 

In the third part of a seven-episode series, the Center for Strategic and International Studies examines the efficacy of sanctions and development aid in furthering US interests in the Middle East.


Bashar al-Assad’s regime sparked widespread criticisms and condemnations across international borders. In December 2019, the United States passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act following a Syrian military police’s provision of images of torture and mass executions in Syrian federal prisons. The act enacted a series of economic sanctions against the Syrian regime, targeting direct affiliates alongside individuals or entities pursuing any business with those on the country’s sanction list. However, most Syrian citizens maintain that the sanctions intensified the rates of poverty and impoverishment. The violent earthquakes that struck northwest Syria on February 6, 2023 further exemplifies the obstructions the sanctions placed on Syrians’ capacity to receive humanitarian aid. 

Visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s comprehensive guide on sanctions in Syria for access to the texts of executive orders, general licenses, statutes, and more. 

Online Texts:

Documentaries and Videos: 


  • The Daily: “A Crisis Within a Crisis in Syria” – In this episode of the New York Times podcast, hosts interview Syrians directly impacted by the earthquakes, examining why Syria is missing in the global outpour of humanitarian aid. 
  • Chain Reaction: “The Caesar Civilian Protection Act: The Debate over Sanctioning Syria” – This podcast from the Foreign Policy Research Institute interviews Basma Alloush, a policy and advocacy advisor at the Norweigan Refugee Council, and Alex Simon, the director of the Synaps’ Syrian program, deciphering whether sanctions “may do more harm than good.” 


U.S. sanctions have maintained a consistent presence in Iran for decades. In 1979, the United States imposed its first sanctions against the Islamic Republic following the Iran hostage crisis. In 1995, the US expanded its sanctions, responding to alleged claims of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. A year later, the sanctions deliberately isolated Iran from American as well as non-US energy companies. Such sanctions came to be known as “secondary” sanctions, threatening non-US individuals and organizations to engage in trade with Iran. In 2006, the United States and European countries passed four resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. These collaborative efforts sought to impose new sanctions in the US and beyond against Iran’s energy, financial, and transportation sectors. In 2015, despite multiple attempts to strengthen and expand sanctions, the US negotiated the Joint Plan of Action with Iran. This agreement withdrew most secondary sanctions not relating to those responding to Iranian support for terrorism and human rights abuses. The global outcry against Iran’s treatment of women brought to light following Mahsa Amini’s murder sparked rapidly changing policies concerning the US’s sanctioning of Iran. In March 2023, the United States placed sanctions on business leaders, companies, federal institutions, and Iranian security and government officials. Two victims of recent US efforts are Ali Chaharmahali and Dariush Bakhshi, the heads of a political prison. 

Online Texts:

Documentaries and Videos: 


The remainder of this resource guide offers a general overview of credible sources centering on US-led sanctions on Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen. 


From 1990 to 2003, the United States and United Nations sanctioned Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. As of 2023, Iraqi citizens indirectly experience the impacts of US sanctions on Iran. 


The United States actively sanctions Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based designated terrorist organization. However, Lebanese citizens additionally endure the consequences of sanctions placed in the neighboring country: Syria.


In the 1980s, the United States enacted sanctions on Libya for its president’s, Muammar Gudaffi, alleged support of terrorism in the Middle East. In 2003, Libya abandoned its Weapons on Mass Destruction and formal ties to terrorism. However, following the 2011 uprising, former President Barack Obama reinstated sanctions against Gadaffi’s regime in Libya.


Current US sanctions in Yemen seek to target its population of Houthi rebels. 

Fair Observer: “US Sanctions Miss the Mark in Yemen”

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