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.
- The Middle East Institute: “A Comprehensive Review of the Effectiveness of US and EU Sanctions on Syria”
- The Carter Center: “U.S. and European Sanctions on Syria”
- The Brookings Institution: “The Caesar Act and a pathway out of conflict in Syria”
- The Washington Post: “FAQ: What are the new U.S. sanctions on Syria, and how might they hurt?”
- Foreign Policy: “The Pointlessness of America’s Syria Sanctions”
- Atlantic Council: “Caesar Act: The Syrian people are sapped while Assad grows stronger”
- The University of South Florida Research and Innovation: “Sanctions: Syria” – This guide outlines the legality of academic activities following the US’s sanctioning of Syria.
- The Intercept: “Are U.S. Sanctions Against Syria Stalling Aif After Earthquake?”
- Al Jazeera: “US Exempts Syrian Earthquake Aid from Sanctions”
- The Washington Post: “Lifting sanctions on Syria won’t help earthquake victims”
Documentaries and Videos:
- Al Jazeera: “Will the Caesar Act Defeat Bashar al-Assad?” – This inside story intricately investigates the implications of the act, leading interviews with experts on the region.
- The Middle East Institute: “Syria and the West: The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions” – This panel features four experts who lead a discussion on sanctions in Syria.
- BreakThrough News: “UN Official Calls for Lifting ‘Illegal’ Syria Sanctions After Seeing Devastation First-Hand” – Rania Khalek interviews UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan after her 12-day visit to Syria. She inspected the impact of sanctions throughout Syria, releasing a statement on her observations.
- 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.
- The Iran Primer: “Timeline of U.S. Sanctions” – This constantly updating timeline documents the United States’ policies on the imposition of sanctions on Iran, including the most recent updates.
- Council on Foreign Relations: “International Sanctions on Iran”
- Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy: “Brief History of US Sanctions on Iran”
- Human Rights Watch: “‘Maximum Pressure’: US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health” – A comprehensive report, additionally featuring a short video, captures the humanitarian impacts of US sanctions.
- BBC: “Six Charts that Show How Hard US Sanctions Have Hit Iran”
- The Economist: “American sanctions bring more agony to Iran’s dysfunctional economy”
- The United Nations: “US sanctions violating human rights of all living there, say UN experts”
- NPR: “U.S. announces new sanctions on Iran, even as it seeks a new nuclear deal”
- Al Jazeera: “What sanctions did Trump slap on Iran?”
- Al Jazeera: “US issues more Iran sanctions amid stalled diplomacy”
- New York Times: “The United States Enters a New Era of Direct Confrontation With Iran”
Documentaries and Videos:
- TRT Off the Grid: “Iran – Under Sanctions” – This documentary interviews Iranian civilians on the impacts of US sanctions on their livelihoods.
- Al Jazeera: “Can Iran’s president persuade the world to end sanctions?” – This inside story interviews three experts on Iran-US relations and examines the status of sanctions.
- Atlantic Council: “The Humanitarian Impact of US Sanctions on Iran” – The Atlantic Council’s Future on Iran Initiative discusses how US sanctions prompted human rights violations.
- PBS: “Enforcing Iran sanctions in the U.S. has harsh consequences” – PBS NewsHour investigates the efficacy and consequences of sanctions.
- U.S. Department of State: “U.S. Policy on Iran Sanctions, Explained” – In this short video, Geraldine Gassan Griffith explains the imperative of sanctions on Iran.
- The Journal: “Iran’s Secret System to Avoid Sanctions” – Ian Talley, a writer with the Wall Street Journal, examines Iran’s financial system following the US’s imposition of sanctions.
- Ones and Tooze: “How Sanctions Work (and Why They Often Don’t)” – This Foreign Policy podcast examines how US-led sanctions devastated the Iranian economy.
- The Iran Podcast: “Four Decades of Sanctions” – Podcast host, Negar Mortazavi intricately discusses how US sanctions on Iran transformed throughout history, examining their impacts and effectiveness.
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.
- Middle East Research and Information Project: “The Enduring Lessons of the Iraq Sanctions”
- Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq – A documentary that seeks to demonstrate the devastating impacts of UN sanctions on Iraqi children during the 1990s. (1h 15m; available for free on Vimeo and Youtube)
- Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon, 2012 – This nonfiction book examines the United States’ role in defining the economic sanctions on Iran during 1990-2003.
- PBS NewsHour: “Why Trump’s sanctions threat revives painful memories for Iraqis”
- Foreign Policy: “U.S. Sanctions on Iran Will Harm Iraq”
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.
- Arab Center DC: “The Symbolism behind the Latest US Sanctions against Hezbollah”
- Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Prepares Sanctions Against Hezbollah’s Allies in Lebanon”
- The Century Foundation: “U.S. Policy Finally Distinguishes Between Lebanon and Hezbollah”
- Al Jazeera: “US Caesar Act could bleed Lebanon for years to come”
- France 24: “Lebanon-Syria: Smuggling and sanctions: the new front line” – This documentary investigates the factors that cost the Lebanese economy millions of dollars a day.
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.
- Visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s comprehensive guide on sanctions in Libya for access to the texts of executive orders, general licenses, statutes, and more.
- Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy: “Libya: Sanctions Removal Done Right?” – An elaborate review on the efficacy of US sanctions in Libya during 1980-2006.
- Reuters: “US imposes sanctions on Gaddafi, Tripoli the focus”
Current US sanctions in Yemen seek to target its population of Houthi rebels.
- Visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s comprehensive guide on sanctions in Yemen for access to the texts of executive orders, general licenses, statutes, and more.
- Al Jazeera: “US issues new sanctions on alleged Houthi financing network”
- PBS NewsHour: “Yemen’s rebels say latest U.S. sanctions will prolong the war”
Fair Observer: “US Sanctions Miss the Mark in Yemen”