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Hopeful but skeptical
The question remains, Ms. Ebadi: whose progress and whose ship?

May 28, 2004

On Monday, May 24th, the Stanford Daily featured a large photo of Shirin Ebadi, along with a report on her talk at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The author of the article, Andrew Gay, rightly points out that Ebadi's public talk was organized by the Persian Students Association and the ASSU Speakers' Bureau. What Gay neglects to mention, however, is the fact that it was Hoover and not the student organizations that brought Ebadi and a large group of distinguished Iranian scholars with a wide range of political views to Stanford to discuss politics in a "changing Iran." [See "Our only hope" ]

Prior to her public speech, Shirin Ebadi was honored at a "closed conference" by Hoover Institution's Abbas Milani, who along with Larry Diamond, a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, has initiated a new project at the Hoover Institution in order to "examine the conditions and prospects for democracy in Iran. The conference, which was only open to those with the right "connections" and those who make large donations to Hoover, seemed to be a platform to perform a selective class-based democracy, where academic knowledge was to be commodified by diasporic Iranians who could afford such luxury.

The paradox of this event lies in Ebadi's criticism of the U.S. foreign policy at Hoover Institution, one of the most conservative think thanks in the U.S., with members such as Condoleeza Rice and George Schultz. However, if one takes into consideration the proliferation of discourses of democracy in Iran during the "war on terrorism" and in the context of the events which preceded Ebadi's Nobel Prize, such a paradox may in fact not seem so puzzling. 

These events included Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002, when he included Iran in the "axis of evil," followed by his speech in July 2002, when he advocated "freedom" and democracy for the "Iranian people" while foreseeing a future "friendship." Other events included Kansas Senator, Brownback's introduction of Iran Democracy Act (S. 1082), numerous conferences about the future of Iran organized by Iranian Opposition groups in the U.S. (including those organized by Hoover's fellow, Abbas Milani), statements released by the Opposition in Iran and diaspora giving advice to the U.S. government about foreign policy towards Iran, the 4th Anniversary of 1999 student movements in Iran and diasporic Opposition groups' hopes for an "organic regime change" in Iran from within.

The urgency of discussing the possibility of democracy in Iran is exemplified in Brownback's May 6th 2003 speech at the American Enterprise Institute's forum. Having introduced a bill to the U.S. Senate (supported by some Iranian diasporic groups), the Republican Kansas Senator claimed that "Iran is the most significant source of terrorism in the world as well as the single biggest opportunity for a peaceful democratic revolution in our age." Brownback's bill (Iran Democracy Act) which called for the U.S. support in cultivating "pro-democracy" movements in Iran, also tightened trade embargo restrictions on Iran, bringing them back to pre-2000 levels, with a complete halt to the importing of any "textile or food articles [which are] produced, grown, or manufactured in Iran." It also put financial pressure on international agencies such as the World Bank, discouraging them from economic assistance to Iran.

Implementing "democracy" through supporting Iranian opposition groups within and outside of Iran seemed (and continues to) be the policy of neo-conservatives in the U.S. during the "war on terrorism." Ironically, supporting democracy in Iran was coupled with economic restrictions that have contributed to the deteriorating living conditions of the "Iranian people," for whom the U.S. law makers claim to advocate. 

There is no doubt that cries for democracy and human rights in Iran are linked- albeit not necessarily in a direct and linear way- to economic and political reforms in Iran. Despite Khatami's celebrated United Nation's resolution in the year 2000, known as "Dialogue among Civilizations," and regardless of Khatami's enthusiasm to improve relationships with the U.S. and Europe, Iran was categorized as belonging to the states sponsoring "international terrorism." In April 2001, the European Union ignored plans to upgrade trade relations with the Islamic Republic, using human rights abuses as the reason for annulling these plans. Shortly after this, the United Nation's Human Rights Commission condemned the Islamic Republic for continuing human rights violations. 

Although by 2002 the relations between the Iranian state and the E.U. had changed, these relations remained contingent upon Iran's human rights record.  Curiously, "human rights" and "democracy" were not always on the agenda of International institutions, but are very much a post-1989 phenomenon. Dictatorships such as Pinochet's regime in Chile, in early 1980s, were not barred from IMF's structural adjustment policies. No one asked for democracy as a pre-requisite then! The human rights requirements of IMF, World Bank, and the WTO were not specific to Iran either. Globally, the discontents with worsening life conditions as a result of cuts in social services (imposed by IMF as requirements for lending), and the weakening of American support of authoritarian regimes after the fall of the soviet, set the conditions for the possibility of discourses of democracy in their neo-liberal forms. 

However, the relationships of governance should not be looked at so straightforwardly and in a top-down order. Unlike the prevalent approaches to the "global order," governance does not simply flow from global organizations such as WTO, down to national states, and finally down to the level of "civil society." If "terrorism" is posed as the threat hovering over much idealized notion of "democracy," new forms of governmentality (and not just the sovereign states) take part in perpetuation of such a discourse. As such, governmentality in a Foucauldian sense (but beyond his theoretical limits of the nation-state) encompasses a new modality of government, where subjects self-discipline and regulatory mechanisms operate "all by themselves." 

These forms of governmentality (what Gupta and Ferguson have called transnational governmentality) not only include new strategies of regulation and discipline (WTO and IMF's SAPs), but also complex international and transnational networks, at times enabled by diasporic flows of people, information, and capital. Iranian Opposition groups and diasporic events such as the one at Hoover are a part of this transnational governmentality, where diasporic "democratic individuals" self-regulate in a conference (Jahanshah Javid in his photo essay saw hope in this, and a speaker at the conference praised the organizers for bringing together under the same roof, people who would otherwise not have tolerated each other). If it is not the disciplining work of the state that the individual autonomously regulates, it is that of transnational regimes of governance, which hold up neo-liberal notions of democracy as yardsticks of "progress."

Ironically, the functionalist links drawn between democracy and economic reform in the conference at Hoover, and the overarching emphasis on the "state-society" binary in this conference, ignored these forms of transnational governmentality. These bodies of authority are simultaneously local and global and utilize new communication technologies (such as internet and satellite television) and neo-liberal practices of capital mobility such as participation in Tehran's Stock Market and wire transfers through unofficial channels. Iranian diasporic communities' investments in Iran have grown immensely as the result of the relatively new Iranian laws that remove investment restrictions, the post September 11 concerns about having funds in the U.S., and the high return on investment in Iran (See Atieh Bahar for information).

The theoretical coupling of democracy with the needs of the market economy as necessary paths to "progress" in a globalizing world, as it was conveyed in the conference at Hoover, does not explain how exactly the rolling back of the state in the economic field will bring democracy to Iran. These neo-liberal approaches that are caught in the binary poles of democracy vs. theocracy ignore that the control over the economic field in Iran has long been in the hands of entities other than the state, i.e. the "non-governmental" organizations that for all practical purposes are not a part of the state, but politically well connected.

There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of democracy being mapped for Iran in U.S. think tanks will certainly benefit a small segment of "Iranian people," some of whom live in diaspora. It is not surprising that Hoover's "project for democracy in Iran" is working hard to recruit Iranian intellectuals to decide upon the future of Iran with funding from wealthy Iranian diaspora. It is not surprising either, that a discussant on a panel, an Iranian businessman, responded to a speaker's casual question of "how much time do I have left?" by answering: "125 Dollors!" 

This clever businessman's response points to the spirit of the conference at Hoover: Commodification of academic knowledge, commodification of democracy, and the trade of time in diasporic space. What is erased in this hot stock market for democracy is the labor that is fetishized. The labor of those who will suffer either way, whether the market is dominated by the state technocrats, the "bonyads," wealthy Iranian expats, or international institutions such as IMF. 

After all, Hoover's fellow, Milani, is of the belief that "increasingly 'wired,' surprisingly cosmopolitan" educated Iranian middle class can play a formative role in shaping Iran's political culture and disposition.  He tells us, "Whoever succeeds in forging an alliance with this emerging middle class will shape the future of Iran" (see Hoover's Digest. 2003. No. 2. Spring). By reminding us of the images of poor Iraqi civilians as an example, Milani asserts that they (the "marginalized elements of the city's underbelly") "are not, as a rule, reliable advocates of democracy." It is clear that Hoover and the Iranians who support its projects are designing a selective class-based "democracy" for the future of Iran, while forming alliances with the intellectual middle class to advance their neo-conservative agendas. 

It seems to me that what Sam Brownback, George Bush, and "fellows" at Hoover's think tanks envision for Iran, is an inevitable future- a desirable end point that awaits the "lagging" Iran on its teleological path to tenets of Western modernity. Shirin Ebadi's anti-war speech in a war-producing institution becomes a "democratic" gesture on Hoover's part, and a lesson in democracy for the "undemocratic" Iranian. The projects of "democracy in Iran" that are developed in think tanks such as Stanford's Hoover Institution, funded by multinational corporations and wealthy Iranian diaspora, and implemented by the crusaders of Bush's administration, can certainly stomach criticism of U.S. foreign policy by Ebadi, as long as her position does not disturb the narratives of "war on terrorism."

In her speech, Ebadi rightly points out that during the "cold war," U.S. policy funded Islamic movements such as Taliban. While this is an extremely important point, it does not say much about new forms of transnational governmentality. By now it is clear that the United States supported the prolongation of the Iran-Iraq war in order to grow its military role in the Gulf, while supporting the Mujahideen (and later Taliban) in Afghanistan and preventing Soviet efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict.

It is also documented that in 1980s, the ARAMCO-created Saudi Arabia, through Osama Bin Laden's coordination and with CIA's aid, exported Wahhabi religious activists critical of the corruption of the Saudi ruling family, to fight the crusade against communism in Afghanistan. No need to say that the bogus "war on terrorism" and the claims of exporting democracy have brought increasing violence to the Middle East. 

So, Ebadi's correct assessment of the situation is not news to her audience. What needs to be assessed critically, however, is the question of how the trope of democracy links different forms of governmentality, including the state, multinational banks and money lending organizations, UN entities, local and global NGOs, and diasporas. Ebadi's criticism of "war on terrorism" in a think tank that took part in creating the discourse of "war on terrorism" needs to be thought through in this complex nexus of power relations. Otherwise, limiting the analysis to the structural level takes for granted the universalist narratives of democracy and progress, without interrogating their links to much diffused forms of power. 

At the end of the question and answer period at Hoover's Memorial Hall, Ebadi responded to a question about her degree of optimism, by saying that "we are all passengers on the same ship and this ship is headed towards a greater civilization. But if any part of the ship is downed it will hurt our progress. But I must be an optimist, because if I am not, I cannot be effective and continue my work."  

While Ebadi's optimism and pragmatism is commendable, the question that remains to be answered is: whose progress and whose ship?  After all, the memory of coolie and slave ships in the making of the "New World" is a not very distant memory in narratives of cohabitation of humanity on ships of "progress." Engines of progress seem to be fueled by the labor of those who barely benefit from the lures of "greater civilizations." But, like Ebadi, I must be an optimist. My optimism looks forward to the productive nature of power and the unintended effects of conferences such as the one organized by the conservative war think tank, Hoover.

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