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Economic Sanctions

The United States implements dozens of sanctions programs, but has faced challenges assessing their effectiveness.

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The United States maintains more than 30 active economic sanctions programs to counteract activities that threaten U.S. national interests. Sanctions may place restrictions on a country’s entire economy, targeted sectors of its economy, or individuals or corporate entities for things such as their support of terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons proliferation, or human rights abuses. Economic restrictions can include denying a designated entity access to the U.S. financial system, freezing an entity’s assets under U.S. jurisdiction, or prohibiting the export of restricted items.

The United States has increasingly used sanctions in recent years to serve a range of foreign policy goals. For example, the United States has imposed a broad range of sanctions on Iran to deter it from developing a nuclear program and ballistic missile capabilities, supporting terrorism, and continuing human rights abuses. The United States has also imposed sanctions on Venezuela targeting, among other things, those involved in actions or policies undermining democratic processes or institutions.

Country-Based and Country-Related U.S. Sanctions Programs as of July 2019

Country-Based and  Country-Related U.S. Sanctions Programs as of July 2019

A number of federal agencies play a role in implementing these sanctions—including developing policy, identifying targets, and prosecuting violators. The Departments of Treasury, State, and Commerce each have units dedicated to implementing sanctions. For instance, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is the largest federal office dedicated to implementing sanctions. However, this office faces challenges hiring staff to meet its growing workload—such as competition with other agencies and the private sector, and long lead times for acquiring needed security clearances.

Additionally, federal agencies do not conduct comprehensive assessments that measure how effective sanctions are in meeting U.S. foreign policy goals. Challenges to measuring the effectiveness of sanctions include difficulties in isolating sanctions’ effects from other factors, shifting policy goals and objectives, and the lack of reliable data.

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