On Sanctions and Marginalization
The recent Security Council sanctions on Iran have caused much stir in the nation; Khamenei has rebuked Ahmadinejad and indicated the possibility of a new nuclear negotiating team, effectively placing the President's main policy focus under his own purview. I highly doubt that the Bush administration will attempt to negotiate even with a team that is willing to back down on every sovereign right, but it would be amusing if the Iranian nuclear program were brought to a halt and the west engaged thanks only to the intervention of the authoritarian bodies of the Islamic Republic.
Then again, the democracy-promotion agenda has sort of been dropped from the Bush administration's foreign policy rhetoric of late, and it would be unlikely that they would notice the irony anyway. In any case, the Security Council sanctions on Iran, limited as they are, would be one of the few cases of successful economic sanctions.
Sanctions against unaccountable authoritarian regimes rarely achieve their avowed political ends, and in most cases those avowed ends aren't the real ones. As the case of Iraq from 1990-2003 illustrates, not only to they cause disgraceful humanitarian disasters that some scholars called "genocide", but they also entrench domestic forces that are in a position to exploit a deprived population.
With the case of North Korea, sanctions meant to "punish" Pyongyang only drive it further away from the international community, encourage the development of its nuclear program, and preclude constructive changes leading to national reconciliation. Its neighbors, of course, recognize this.
Then what are economic sanctions really supposed to accomplish? Are they mostly manifestations of domestic policy? In that light, how can the sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa be interpreted? Interestingly, the character of apartheid didn't change significantly between the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration considered South Africa a valued ally, and later in the decade, when sanctions were put into effect.
Similarly, sanctions against Iraq didn't follow its US-supported illegal war of aggression against Iran, which was a pariah state in the eyes of the American state and most of its allies. Indeed, as declassified documentary evidence clearly illustrates, the United States not only aided Saddam's war from behind a veil of official neutrality, but it played a role in mitigating international backlash against his illegal use of chemical weapons (obtained from American and European companies) against Iranian soldiers. Only when Iraq invaded an American outpost, Kuwait, with considerably less loss of life, did it merit United Nations sanctions. Supposedly, sanctions were meant to "punish" Saddam; he continued to live in opulence while his people languished. They simply ruined Iraq and primed it for later military conquest.
The character of the violations culminating in sanctions is rarely significant, and, I'd bet, sanctions without incentives are rarely intended to work.