In Iran, feminist foreign policy demands both short-term interventions to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population and a long-term approach to deal with the state’s structural violence against its own citizens. It needs to respond to the more fundamental question of how to support pluralistic and democratic civil society in repressive contexts.
by Barbara Mittelhammer and Cornelius Adebahr
Iran has been gripped by a feminist revolution, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini in police custody on September 16, 2022. Iranians of all walks of life have protested for three months against a regime built on the institutionalized oppression of women and on systematic violations of women’s and human rights. As the revolt continues, a yet more forceful, possibly militarized response from the regime is conceivable. The first executions related to the protests on December 8 and repeated military attacks against the Iraqi Kurdish region have raised the potential of spiraling escalation of violence internally and externally. This leaves the eventual outcome entirely open and makes the need to react at international level ever more urgent.
Among EU member states, Germany is under particular pressure to act, both due to its traditionally balanced relations with Iran and to the government’s declared feminist foreign policy. However, the feminist approach is not (only) relevant because the women are leading the revolt in Iran, but precisely because it zooms in on the social and political complexities driving the revolt. In fact, feminist foreign policy demands both short-term interventions to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population and a long-term approach to deal with the state’s structural violence against its own citizens. In the end, any feminist policy also needs to respond to the more fundamental question of how to support pluralistic and democratic civil society in repressive contexts.
This paper concentrates on key aspects of feminist foreign policy towards Iran, responding to the urgency of the human rights crisis as much as to the need to shift priorities in the long run. Translating the feminist approach into proposals for governmental action, the analysis also contributes to Germany’s definition of a feminist foreign policy at large, which includes the development of a new national security strategy.
Germany’s feminist foreign policy and what it means in the context of Iran
Feminist foreign policy centers on human security, human rights, and the consideration of structural inequalities as drivers of conflict – between genders, but also beyond. Based on this broad understanding, the German government committed to a feminist foreign policy when taking office in December 2021. It is currently in the process of translating this approach into its foreign and security as well as development policy making. The country’s first-ever national security strategy will be presented in early 2023, followed by dedicated feminist guidelines for foreign policy scheduled for March this year.
Concretely, the Foreign Office adopted the “3R+D” approach of rights, resources, and representation, plus diversity. The underlying idea is that the more diverse and inclusive decision-making procedures are – whether about the implementation of rights, questions of representation, or the distribution of and access to resources – the more sustainable the decisions themselves become, as they avoid the usual blind spots. The emphasis on diversity implies the embracing of intersectionality, or forms of multiple discrimination such as, in the case of Iran, ‘woman and Kurdish’ or ‘young andtransgender’. By doing so, the feminist approach detects patterns of exclusion deriving from structural power imbalances.
While the Foreign Office is working on guidelines to implement its feminist foreign policy, the government is faced with a reality demanding substantial and immediate actions. Given the Iranian regime's persistent brutality, the feminist approach must above all respond to the enormous violations of children’s, women’s, and human rights, including the (imminent) execution of protestors, massive violence against demonstrators as well as the arbitrary arrest of protesters, women’s and human rights defenders, civil society activists, and journalists. In line with the feminist approach, any response should consider the extent to which marginalized groups are particularly attacked, such as the Kurdish or Baluchi minorities, the Baha’i religious community, Afghan refugees, or minors.
Both the German government as well as the German Bundestag have outlined a number of immediate actions in line with a feminist perspective on the situation in Iran. These include efforts to document and verify the massive violations of women’s and human rights to hold those responsible accountable as well as safeguarding digital rights and protecting women's and human rights defenders. Jointly with Iceland, Germany introduced a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in November 2022 that tasked an international commission with investigating the crimes committed by the Iranian regime – a first, but crucial step to achieve accountability.
Political decision-makers should therefore press for the effective and timely implementation of the measures already taken, not allowing the revolt to fade from the world’s attention. At the same time, they need to adapt to potential changes on the ground, for the better as well as for the worse, in order to continue to support civic-minded protesters to realize their demands, make specific human rights demands to halt executions, facilitate protection for women’s and human rights defenders in and outside of Iran, and increase immediate emergency funding to women and human rights organizations. The following three key feminist issues can help guide such foreign policy formulation – towards Iran but also beyond. Concretely, this entails integrating an expanded understanding of security to aspire for long-term change, facing dilemmas and dealing with them comprehensively, and lastly being realistic, consistent, and credible.
Challenges for and potential of a feminist approach on Iran
1. Seeing the bigger picture
Feminist foreign policy addresses the root causes of conflict and violence and works towards a more comprehensive approach to security acknowledging the complexities of reality. Thus, it aims to change (foreign) policymaking and thinking in the long-term through the inclusion of diverse voices and by critically reflecting the prioritization of state over human or feminist security. This feminist understanding of security is the foundational paradigm that Germany should incorporate into its strategic re-evaluation of foreign and security policy, based on the declared “Zeitenwende” as much as the ongoing work on the national security strategy.
Regarding Iran, it would be short-sighted to blame feminist foreign policy for not producing a quick response to the clampdown led by a long-standing autocratic and repressive regime, or for not coming up with a policy fix after the EU, and Germany, had predominantly focused on the nuclear file for years. Also, a now oft-heard criticism that the feminist approach is failing the women in Iran falls flat if coming from actors that oppose feminist values at the domestic level. Feminist foreign policy starts at home, which means one cannot legitimately deride the suppression of women in another part of the world while denying effective equal rights, including women’s bodily autonomy, in one’s own society.
The fact that feminist foreign policy is no “easy” remedy is not a sign of conceptual weakness but of the flawed system in which it has to be applied. At the same time, it is not a “perfect” approach unbothered by real-world dilemmas but demands a more honest reckoning with them.
2. Acknowledging persisting dilemmas
Feminist foreign policy does not claim to solve the dilemmas rooted in a narrow comprehension of security enforced by and for states applying an approach of (military) dominance. Instead, by looking at things more comprehensively, the feminist approach expands the focus to then act purposefully and use existing as well as newly developed instruments in a targeted manner. In the case of Iran, this means upholding a human rights approach while also acknowledging, for example, nuclear non-proliferation as an existential threat to human security.
Given the urgent need to support Iranians risking their lives in the streets fighting for freedom and dignity, the so-called nuclear file poses a particular dilemma. Nuclear non-proliferation – that is, freedom from an immediate nuclear threat – is a human right in itself. That makes the 2015 Iran deal – which did away with an imminent nuclear threat and strengthened the international non-proliferation regime – an important diplomatic milestone also from a feminist point of view. At the same time, the sectoral sanctions that were imposed to achieve this result, and which the United States has factually and unilaterally extended to the present day, have caused enormous direct and indirect harm to the population and to civil society in particular. Moreover, the world’s singular focus on the nuclear file over the last decade has led to a disregard for important aspects of human rights promotion and civil society support.
However, ending the nuclear talks now in support of the revolt, as some demand, would be largely symbolic and without (positive) effect on the human rights situation on the ground. Doing so without a Plan B on how to deal with the nuclear threat in the absence of a deal could have even worse consequences, as it would make a regional military confrontation more likely. Concluding the talks, in turn, would give Tehran international recognition, emboldening the regime rather than the protesters in need of support. That said, any compromise is unimaginable at the moment, as not only had diplomatic efforts stalled before the beginning of the current revolt but also has Iran recently upped its nuclear gambit, for example by increasing uranium enrichment to levels far beyond any civilian use.
Aware of this dilemma, a feminist approach therefore does not advocate to abandon the nuclear negotiations. Instead, it suggests that human rights and the long-term effects on human security should feature prominently throughout any diplomatic effort.
3. Being realistic – in a feminist sense
The current crisis is not an isolated incident, but the product of the long-established suppression of women’s rights as mandated by Iran’s political system. Iranian laws not only fail to protect women from discrimination or physical harm, but also include several discriminatory provisions that directly limit women’s agency. A system built on systematic repression of women and marginalized groups is neither stable nor a trustworthy partner, not least because gender equality is the strongest indicator for the peacefulness of a state, internally and externally. In fact, the revolt itself and the regime’s violent response highlight – again – that where women’s rights are contested, oppressed and violated, human rights, peace and security for all are at risk.
A major challenge for policy making in a context as repressive and isolated as Iran is the information gap and the disconnect from voices in the country. This makes it even more necessary to maintain contact – including diplomatic representation – and recognize civil society expertise as a resource, to develop a gender-aware focus on the priorities of the Iranian people, and to create an effective mechanism for the inclusion of civil society voices, based on a structured and long-term exchange. Iranian diaspora groups can play an important role by providing information as much as by acting as a conduit into the country. However, their diverse interests and a tendency of strong personalization, be it positive or negative, point to the need for a differentiated approach.
The ongoing dearth of information also underlines the importance of having a diplomatic representation inside the country, for consular services, e.g., to facilitate visa and asylum issues, as well as for political reporting, including on human rights. Like with the nuclear deal, member states closing down their respective embassy in Tehran would hardly help those who revolt against the regime (the EU does not even have a delegation to begin with). Increase the latter’s isolation does not by itself change the calculation of an elite fearing not just for their power, but also their own survival. In turn, cutting diplomatic channels would deprive any feminist-minded government of the tools to deliver its message to the intended recipient, let alone being in the position to quickly become active once actual change on the ground become discernable.
Accordingly, and in close cooperation with trusted diaspora-based civil society organizations, the German government should support the documentation and verification of the countless human rights violations, with the aim of holding Iranian officials accountable, and make specific and vocal human rights demands, especially on cases of imminent execution of protesters. Already today, it should increase the pressure on those individuals and organizations through targeted restrictive measures. It should support and protect women’s and human rights defenders – through means ranging from increased and flexible funding to unbureaucratically facilitating visa processes and the possibility to live and work in the EU.
Importantly, the government should aim to safeguard digital rights in Iran, as well as monitor and minimize the impact of political (restrictive) measures on the civilian population. An enhanced exchange with Iranian civil society would allow future policy to be aligned with gender-aware priorities. Considering the precarious socio-economic situation and the harsh impact a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime has had, particularly on women and vulnerable groups, a targeted and purposeful approach is key.
With a view to more long-term responses to such crisis in authoritarian contexts, the government should include the knowledge gained from the current situation for an increased use of strategic foresight in policy planning.
A consistent human rights-based approach – throughout all layers of German foreign policy
Finally, a feminist response to Iran not only entails a human rights-based approach towards the country itself, but also considers the external repercussions, whether of the Iranian regime’s response or of one’s own policies. For example, the deliberate smearing of the revolt as driven by allegedly irredentist ethnic minorities with foreign connections threatens to spill over violence into neighboring countries. However, calling out Tehran for its obvious tactics is not enough; instead, a feminist-minded government would work with neighboring countries like Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan to facilitate refuge for women and human rights defenders there.
In the same vein, consistency and credibility are key when it comes to one’s own policies. As the approach focuses on the power dynamics driving violent conflict, Germany needs to have a critical look at whether and how its foreign policy prioritizes human security, gender equality, and women’s and human rights across the board. This holds true not only vis-à-vis the current – women-led – revolt Iran, but also for neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf countries, or Egypt. And it extends to the need for a coordinated approach through the EU as much as through the UN’s multilateral fora. Uniting the international community, including Global South countries, behind a solid and value-based approach towards Iran, requires an honest reckoning by the West of persistent power imbalances in those international bodies.
Text: Barbara Mittelhammer and Cornelius Adebahr for Böll-Stiftung, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0