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Of Nuclear Rials and Golden Shoes: Scaling Commodities and Currencies across Sanctions on Iran

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 August 2021

Emrah Yıldız*
Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 60208, USA
Corresponding author. Email:


Since the 2012 sanctions that dis-embedded the Iranian economy from global markets, contraband commerce has become an explosive issue in Iran. Increasingly Iranians came to regard sanctions as enforced by both international powers and their own state officials, who criminalized certain kinds of cross-border trade, but not others. Although Iranian state actors distinguish between the trader—praised for contributing to the economy—and the traitor—denounced for undermining its integrity—what both unites and blurs the line between them is their shared struggle with a devaluing currency that some Iranians call nuclear. This article examines the “nuclear rial” by extending insights from anthropological scholarship on money to the study of sanctions to advance a dynamic understanding of currency. Studying Iranian trade in gold proves productive for understanding how people negotiate the effects of sanctions in an unevenly financialized world. At stake in the negotiations is a conditional articulation of monetary value that relies on contingent conversions between commodities and currencies and among currencies.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 I understand the economy as “the totality of the relations of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services within a given country or region [that] arose in a mid-twentieth-century crisis of economic representation” (Mitchell, Timothy, “Fixing the Economy,” Cultural Studies, 12, no. 1 (1998): 82–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar). For an anthropology of the national economy, see also Appel, Hannah, “Towards an Ethnography of the National Economy,” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2 (2017): 294–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In both cases the author interrogates the premised scale of the economy fixed at the scale of the nation–state. Here I focus on how the functioning of that national economy is premised upon its territorially bound token of equivalence, its (national) currency.

2 Guyer, Jane, “Soft Currencies, Cash Economies, New Monies: Past and Present,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 7 (2012): 2214–21Google ScholarPubMed. Some money theorists maintain that store of wealth and unit of account are parts of a single function, namely standard of value. See Maurer, Bill, “The Anthropology of Money,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 1536CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 The conversion of any soft currency to another (e.g., Iranian rial to Turkish lira) has to be established first through their value relative to the US Dollar and then reconciled; the US dollar serves as the universal equivalent form, determining the two currencies’ relative values.

4 These include acts and executive orders dated (1) 14 November 1979, blocking certain property or interest in property of the Iranian government; (2) 7 and 17 April 1980, extending the sanctions to include a ban on all commerce and travel between Iran and the United States; (3) 13 January 1984, the designation of Iran as a supporter of international terrorism, invoking a ban on any foreign assistance, loan, or transfer of arms to Iran; (4) 29 October 1987, stating that no goods of Iranian origin may be imported into the United States; (5) 17 November 1987, Iranian transactions regulations setting forth detailed licensing procedures for goods exempted from the import ban; (6) 1993, the Iran–Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act banning any transfer that aids Iranian or Iraqi attempts to acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear types of advanced conventional weapons; (7) 15 March 1995, prohibiting a US citizen from entering into contracts for the financing or overall management or supervision of the development of petroleum resources located in Iran or in an area over which Iran claims jurisdiction; (8) 6 May 1995, prohibiting exportation from the United States to Iran of goods, technology, or services, including trade financing by US banks; (9) 5 August 1996, the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act; (10) 19 August 1997, clarifying previous orders and confirming that virtually all trade and investment activities with Iran by US persons, wherever located, are prohibited; and (11) 10 August 2012, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. Details of these executive orders can be found in the yearly volumes of the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office).

5 “Timeline: Sanctions on Iran,” Al Jazeera, 16 October 2012,

6 “Iran Customs Adopts New Tactics to Fight Smuggling,” Financial Tribune, 9 April 2017, adopts-new-tactics-to-fight-smuggling.

7 Milton Friedman, “Quantity Theory of Money,” in The New Palgrave: Money, ed. John Eatwell et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987): 1–44. In his review of money markets since 1971—when gold backing of fiat money was abandoned—Friedman states, “exchange rates have supposedly been free to float and to be determined by private markets. In practice, governments still intervene in an attempt to affect the exchange rates of their currencies” (19).

8 Bohannan, Paul, “The Impact of Money on an African Subsistence Economy,” Journal of Economic History 19, no. 4 (1959): 1–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 All names used in this article, with the exception of public figures, are pseudonyms.

10 Richard Howitt, “Scale as Relation: Musical Metaphors of Geographical Scale,” Area 30 (1998): 49–58. Howitt recognizes scale to possess three facets: size, level, and relation. Once conceptualized as relational and dynamic, scale figures into my analysis “as a factor in the construction and dynamics of [economic] totalities” (56) rather than being their neutral background or frame. See also Marston, Sallie, “The Social Construction of ScaleProgress in Human Geography 24, no. 2 (2000): 219–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Instead of reducing and fixing scale to the size or level [of monetized value] alone, I deploy scale as “a relational element in the social production of lived [economies]” (221) in my analysis. The dynamic relationship between commodity and currency under sanctions necessitates such a dynamic conceptualization. Contending with this dynamism has implications for how we understand currencies writ large.

11 Igor Kopytoff, “Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–92.

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14 Maurer, “Anthropology of Money,” 21.

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16 For an erudite analysis of the concurrent emergence of territorial currencies and national economies, see Eric Helleiner, The Making of National Money: Territorial Currencies in Historical Perspective (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003). On the multiplicity of moneys and their socially generated values that are irreducible to the value extracted from the realm of production, see Zelizer, Viviana, “The Social Meaning of Money: ‘Special Monies,’American Journal of Sociology 95, no. 2 (1989): 342–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the unconditional interchangeability of money, see Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, trans. Tom Bottomore et al. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

17 Simmel, Philosophy of Money, 128.

18 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage, 1973; originally published 1939), 221.

19 Gustav Peebles, The Euro and Its Rivals: Currency and the Construction of a Transnational City (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011); Douglas Holmes, Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

For a definition of monetary value as the combined function of relations of difference and similarity that is traced back to Vilfredo Pareto's formulation, see Bill Maurer, Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). Pareto quoted in Maurer: “to determine what a five-franc piece is worth one must know: (1) that it can be exchanged for a fixed quantity of a different thing, e.g., bread; and (2) that it can be compared with a similar value of the same system, e.g., a one-franc piece, or with coins of another system (a dollar, etc.)” (159–60, emphasis added).

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23 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, eds., Money and the Morality of Exchange (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1–32.

24 Jane Guyer, Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 28.

25 Ibid.

26 “Kaçakçıların Yeni Gözdesi Külçe Altın,” Haberler, 24 October 2012,

27 Ghachagh (contraband) in Persian is derived from the Turkic verb kaçmak, meaning to run away, flee, or seek refuge. It connotes breaching the obligations of a social contract, and so has a wider semantic domain than the Latin contraband.

28 “Sevvomin munazara-i televizyoni-i namzadha-i intikhabat riyasat-i cumhuri-i Iran bargozar shod,” Anadolu Agency Persian, 5 December 2017,

29 James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Rebecca Galemba, Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

30 The P5 + 1 refers to the UN Security Council's five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany. These six countries negotiated with Iran the joint comprehensive framework for Iran's nuclear program that was confirmed in July 2015. The United States withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and introduced further sanctions on Iran.

31 Mohammed Daoudi and Munther Suleiman Dajani, Economic Sanctions: Ideals and Experience (London: Routledge, 1983), 163.

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36 Portela, “European Union Sanctions,” 912. Sixty-eight percent of all sanctions the UN Security Council adopted from 1990 until 2015 were imposed on African states, actors, and entities. Only twenty episodes (35%) of UNSC sanctions targeted non-African entities. These episodes comprised one European state (the former Yugoslavia), one Caribbean state (Haiti), and one Asian state (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea). The remaining episodes concerned the states of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon and individuals and entities connected to al-Qaʿida, the Taliban, and Hezbollah. See Charron, Andrea and Portela, Clara, “The UN, Regional Sanctions and Africa,” International Affairs 91, no. 6 (2015): 1369–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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38 Over half a million preventable deaths of children were attributed to the comprehensive sanctions placed on Iraq. See Asli Bali and Aziz Rana, “Sanctions are Inhumane: Now, and Always,” Boston Review, 26 March 2020,

39 Peou, Sorpong, “Why ‘Smart’ Sanctions Still Cause Human Insecurity,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 7, no. 2 (2019): 265–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 A report suggests that, in addition to the mass exodus the sanctions set into motion, at least 40,000 civilian deaths within the last two years in Venezuela can be traced back to US sanctions. See Andrew Buncombe, “U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela Responsible for Tens of Thousands of Deaths, Claims New Report,” The Independent, 26 April 2020,

41 John Law, “Collateral Realities,” in The Politics of Knowledge, ed. Fernando Dominguez Rubio and Patrick Baert (London: Routledge, 2011), 156–78.

42 Erica Cosgrove, “Examining Targeted Sanctions: Are Travel Bans Effective?” in International Sanctions: Between Words and Wars in the Global System, ed. Peter Wallensteen and Carina Staibano (Abingdon, UK: Frank Cass, 2005), 201–28; Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, and Strandow, Daniel, “Targeting the Right Targets? The UN Use of Individual Sanctions,” Global Governance 18, no. 2 (2006): 207–30Google Scholar.

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47 “2.7 milyar dolarin nereye gittigini o biliyor!” Fortune, 10 October 2018,

48 “Zarrab Holds Most of Zanjani's Money, Iran Says,” Hurriyet, 4 April 2016,

49 “Hukm-i idam-i Babak Zanjani tayyid shod,” Deutsche Welle Farsi, 12 March 2016,

50 United States v. Zarrab, US District Court, Southern District of New York, S4 15 Cr. 867 (RMB), 23–26,

51 Ibid., 34–38.

52 “Altınları nasıl götürdük?” Cumhuriyet, 16 July 2015,

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