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A look at US sanctions on Russia, Iran from Obama to the Biden years

Russia and Iran are the two most sanctioned countries in the world. Iran had the most before Russia invaded Ukraine with around 3,600. Russia had 2,695. After the invasion in February 2022, sanctions on Russia skyrocketed to more than 16,000.

“The sanctions against Russia began under the Obama administration after the first Russian invasion in 2014,” former Ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried said. “These were by current standards, moderate sanctions. At the time, we thought they were severe sanctions. And they were certainly the biggest sanctions we had ever put on Russia or on an economy as large as Russia.”

Fried is now a Weiser Family distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council. During his time working with the Obama administration, he served as State Department coordinator for sanctions policy. He crafted U.S. sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea.

“They had an impact on Putin. He retreated somewhat from his initial war aims in Ukraine in 2014. When we didn’t increase the sanctions, as I think we should have at the end of 2015 and 2016, he started preparing, I think, his next moves against Ukraine.”


Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks

Russian President Vladimir Putin  (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The actions targeted Russian nationals, financial institutions and its energy sector. Most of those enacted during the Obama administration were related to Russia’s stance on Ukraine.

“I think, in retrospect, that we in the Obama administration should have escalated with our sanctions. We didn’t do so,” Fried said. 

“Then we were in an election year, and the Obama people didn’t want to escalate against Russia, even when the evidence mounted of Russian interference in the U.S. election using disinformation. I think that was a mistake The problem with the Trump administration is you had a lot of good people continuing the sanctions. But let us say mixed messages from President Trump himself, which undercut the efforts of his own administration.”

Iranian revolutionary guard members marching

Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war.  (Reuters)

The Trump administration added additional sanctions in response to Russian cyber activity, Putin’s support for North Korea and U.S. election interference.

“Russia, prior to the advent of the Ukraine war, was actually relatively well integrated in the global financial economy, whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran wasn’t,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

“There’s also the difference between the scale and the size of the target of each of the economies that the Americans and the Europeans were looking to impact with sanctions.”


Russian flag

This photograph taken April 12, 2023, shows the Russian national flag atop the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow. (Kirill Kudravtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden was in office a little more than a year when Russia invaded Ukraine. The U.S. worked with allies around the world to implement thousands of additional sanctions.

“The Biden administration prepared very tough sanctions, and when Putin launched his full invasion of Ukraine in 2022, they pulled the trigger on these. These sanctions were basically my escalatory list.” Fried said.

Russia’s sanctions were mostly imposed all at once while Iran’s were added and adjusted over a longer period of time.

“I think it takes a multiple sanctions, dozens of sanctions. And it takes them all working together,” said Rep Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla. “These countries are all working together as kind of the underbelly of society because the rest of the world is united against them.”

President Joe Biden

President Biden holds a meeting at the White House April 4, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The Biden administration has imposed Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia and has gradually sanctioned Iran. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Working with allies has helped put additional pressure on Russia. Some experts say Iran sanctions have had less international support in recent years.

“The Iranian sanctions were pushed by the U.S., and the Europeans were dragged along somewhat reluctantly. It was a much more contentious exercise, and that’s one of the reasons the sanctions regime is less effective,” Fried said.


The U.S. initially worked with the European Union and the United Nations to block Iran’s oil exports and make it more costly for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In 2015, some of those sanctions were lifted under the Iran Nuclear Deal.

“The sanctions applied during the Obama administration were sufficient to get the Iranians to the negotiating table about the nuclear program,” Fried said. “When Trump pulled us out, he was basically asking sanctions to force Iranian regime change, and that’s probably too much to ask of sanctions.”

Kharg Island Oil Terminal in Iran

The Port of Kharg Island Oil Terminal in Iran March 12, 2017.  (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In 2018, President Trump pulled the U.S. from the Iran Nuclear Deal. Some sanctions were reimposed and additional restrictions were implemented.

“One of the major achievements in the Trump administration sanctions was that it was able to unilaterally, not only reconstitute the pressure that was generated by multilateral sanctions against Iran, but exceed that pressure,” Taleblu said. 

“European states may have felt that it was more urgent to tackle the Russian state’s invasion of Ukraine rather than to support the U.S. president during the previous administration because they disagreed with the manner in which those sanctions were being imposed.”

A European official says EU countries will likely agree to maintain ballistic missile sanctions on Iran. Those are due to expire in October. It could also be a window of opportunity to negotiate a nuclear deal.

“Collectively, these sanctions that have been applied to Russia, to Iran, to China do cause a great deal of harm to them economically. And sometimes it takes longer than we would like for their behavior to change. But I don’t think there’s any question, with respect to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that it has had a significant impact on them and their ability to manage that war,” Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., said.

Vladimir Putin Ali Khamenei

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. (Dmitry Azarov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russia sanctions were a clear response to what was happening in Ukraine. The goals were to weaken Putin’s military and cripple Moscow’s economy. Some experts say the sanctions on Iran have a less clear direction now.

“With Iran, the trouble is that we have debated what it is we’re after,” Fried said. “The Iran sanctions regime is frustrating. The Russia sanctions regime is part of a more coherent and more broadly supported policy. But neither one has achieved complete success. Neither one has failed.”

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