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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
These forms of governmentality (what Gupta and Ferguson
have called transnational governmentality) not only include new
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
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
This clever businessman's response points to the
spirit of the conference at Hoover: Commodification of academic
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
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
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,
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
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.
goodbye to spam!