“Smart Targeting” and the Meaning of Money

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

In March 2012, the financial communications company SWIFT began to block all banking transactions to about thirty Iranian banks named on the European Union sanctions list. SWIFT’s decision affects much of the international financial transactions traffic to Iran, targeting not just Iranian (oil) revenues—as intended—but also disabling the sending and receiving of remittances by (migrant) families in the Iranian diaspora. SWIFT itself called it an “extraordinary and unprecedented step” to which it had been compelled by EU legislation. [1] According to an EU official, cutting off Iranian banking from the global financial system in this manner “is a very efficient measure [that] can seriously cripple the banking sector of Iran.” [2] This unprecedented measure did not cause much debate, however, and seemed designed to evade the normally heated political debates about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the effectiveness of sanctions, and the possibility and desirability of Western intervention.

This new strategic and geopolitical role of SWIFT, a financial company that ten years ago hardly anyone had heard of, follows from its previous enlistment in the war on terrorism financing. Since 2001, CIA and US Treasury have examined SWIFT’s database with a view to identifying suspect relations and mapping potential terrorist networks. In the so-called Terrorism Financing Tracking Programme, the strings of financial transactions and relations of suspects are “pulled” in order to identify further suspects and generate investigative leads. Financial connections have become a new measure of suspect relationality. Security action is routed through disabling, disconnecting and delegitimating particular financial connectivities.

Why do we need an anthropology of finance—broadly understood—in order to understand and critically analyze the recruitment of the commercial company SWIFT into geopolitical security practice? That is not just because these novel forms of targeting remain below the radar of political discussion and democratic deliberation—as they are, undoubtedly, intended to. It is also because they rely upon, and in turn generate, particular historically and culturally situated meanings of money. In these security programs, and in the pursuit of terrorist monies more widely, the financial transaction is inscribed with the capacity to reveal the truth about social relations and individual intentions. The transnational webs of suspect communities are expected to be revealed through their financial connectivities. Responsibilities and culpabilities are assigned on the basis of financial associations and donations. Interestingly, the meanings ascribed to monetary connections in these security practices are closer to Zelizer than they are to Simmel—they do not regard money as a neutral and depersonalizing intermediary but, instead, consider monetary connections to entail meaningful social relations and, even, the propensity for shared ideological outlook. In Zelizer’s terms, we can say that pursuing terrorist monies and targeting Iranian sanctions through SWIFT affects, shapes and disables the “circuits of kinship” that are maintained through remittance networks.

How different is the meaning of money mobilized in relation to that other great financial conundrum of the day: the financial crisis. Here, financial connectivities are not seen to signify shared ideologies or, lesser still, to be able to generate investigations and pinpoint responsibilities. Here, culpability disperses within an expansive financial network in which monetary ties are considered to be more Simmelian than Zelizerian: expressions of rational, calculative, profit-oriented interactions that made economic sense at the time, even if they cumulatively brought the world to the brink of financial collapse.

The differential mobilizations of meanings of money in the Iranian sanctions on the one hand and the financial crisis on the other, in relation to remittance networks on the one hand and the trading networks for mortgage backed securities on the other, is why finance needs an anthropology. Or, more precisely, why we need to stay attuned to the ways in which money and financial connectivities are inscribed with cultural meaning and come to function as signs that enable the constitutions of worlds – worlds in which security power can operate; in which certain global circulations are fostered while others are hampered; in which responsibilities and culpabilities are mobilized or denied.

Marieke de Goede works at the University of Amsterdam is author of Speculative Security: the Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


[1] https://www.swift.com/insights/press-releases/swift-instructed-to-disconnect-sanctioned-iranian-banks-following-eu-council-decision

[2] Quoted in http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/world/middleeast/crucial-communication-network-expelling-iranian-banks.html