By Val Moghadam, Northeastern University | Massachusetts Peace Action | Feminist Foreign Policy Project
Iran and the United States
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – exemplified a certain historic trend in U.S. foreign policy. That trend, which has spanned both Democratic and Republican administrations, is to delegate for the U.S. the right to decide which international treaty to honor, which multilateral organization to respect and support, and which country or countries around the world to undermine. Thus over the decades, the U.S. has subverted, bombed, invaded, and occupied countries; it has denigrated or withdrawn from UNESCO (twice, from 1984-2002, and again in 2019), the ILO (briefly, in 1977), and the WHO (in 2020, to take effect in 2021); and it has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal (2018) and the Paris climate agreement (2019). Over the decades, the U.S. has chosen not to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (known as CEDAW, 1979, in force since 1981) or to join the 2002 Rome Statute, which founded the International Criminal Court. The Trump administration is the most egregious violator of international agreements, but its actions are not unprecedented.
One of the few achievements of the Obama administration was to conclude the JCPOA, which established a set of strict monitoring protocols over Iran’s nuclear sector. If the objective was to ensure a nuclear-free Middle East, however, it failed – not only because the U.S. political system allows a government to abrogate an international treaty concluded by the preceding one, but also because the Obama administration did nothing to compel Israel to own up to its own nuclear arsenal and begin the process of denuclearization. The Obama administration also continued to provide extremely generous. military grants to Israel, with no conditions attached. It continued the longstanding U.S. policy of subsidizing U.S. weapons manufacturers and selling highly sophisticated weapons to oppressive states such as Saudi Arabia.
A feminist foreign policy would overturn all the above actions. It would seek diplomacy, international cooperation, demilitarization, and denuclearization. It would not only return to the UN agencies from which the U.S. has withdrawn but also would seek to strengthen the UN and its specialized agencies through increased funding and the nomination of highly qualified feminist officials. A feminist foreign policy would insist on reviving the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear agreement. If it attached any “conditionalties” to negotiations, it would be to insist on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, to ensure the participation of representatives of women’s rights and peace organizations. A return to the JCPOA – which one hopes that a Biden administration could accomplish in its first 100 days – could likewise entail the participation of representatives of women’s rights activists in Iran (such as the valiant lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, frequently harassed and jailed by the Islamic Iranian authorities) as well as representatives of transnational feminist networks such as WILPF, Code Pink, and the Marche Mondiale des Femmes. And the extremely harsh economic sanctions against Iran, which have been ramped up under the Trump/Pompeo regime, would be lifted.
Do Women Make a Difference in Foreign Policy?
Women diplomats like Catherine Ashton of the UK, Germany’s Helga Schmid, Wendy Sherman of the U.S., and Federica Mogherini of the EU were pivotal to the negotiations resulting in the signing of the JCPOA. There are other examples of impressive women in power: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the women governing Finland and Iceland. Would the presence of more women like them in positions of power help bring about a more stable, secure, peaceful, cooperative, and women-friendly world? Certainly. But then I remember women like Condoleeza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Hillary Clinton, and – internationally – the former president Park of South Korea and the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan (who turned a blind eye at her country’s nuclear development), not to mention Margaret Thatcher. Such women officials held hawkish views and had no qualms about attacking other countries. It is not enough to have women in power; they should be judged on their capacity and willingness to enact feminist principles of equality, cooperation, and peace. The security and prosperity of women (and children, youth, and men) in one country (e.g., the U.S.) should not be enacted at the expense of the human security of people elsewhere and especially not of women’s physical security. What, after all, did the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya accomplish other than a failed state and the murder of many prominent women?
The U.S. heavily arms Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), three countries that attack other countries (notably Syria and Yemen by all three countries, and the siege of Gaza by Israel). Compounded by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO bombardment of Libya (both times to enact “regime change”), such actions have made the Middle East a very unstable region – even before the January 2020 assassination in Iraq of Iranian General Ghassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Such actions not only make the Iranian authorities jittery and reactive, but also perpetuate patriarchy and gender inequality in the region. As we know from decades of feminist research, patriarchy is both a cause and effect of militarism and violence. U.S. foreign policy is no friend of women’s rights and equality, and it never has been.
For these reasons, the participation and engagement of representatives of transnational feminist networks is critical to a new foreign policy. Working in coalition with other progressive organizations, including broad peace movements, advocates of a feminist foreign policy should push for a complete overhaul of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, based as it is on the expansion of U.S. hegemony through militarism, capitalism, and the threat of economic sanctions. Is there any reason for the continued presence of numerous U.S. bases around the world? Why should Iran be surrounded by U.S. bases, making the Iranian authorities anxious, reactive, and hostile – as well as unlikely to enact domestic reforms? As noted, a feminist foreign policy would prioritize diplomacy, cooperation, and honest brokerage, not the biased and bullying tactics that have characterized U.S. actions.
What Do Iranian Women Want?
Like women anywhere, Iranian women desire a stable, peaceful, and prosperous country, but they also want the repeal of discriminatory laws that place limits on their autonomy within the family and in public spaces. They similarly desire a relaxation of the social and cultural restrictions that have been in place for decades.
Iran is as stratified as any country; it has a class system where some do much better than others. That’s also true of the female population, although all women in Iran are subject to the same discriminatory laws, which place women in a subordinate position within the family, subject to the “protection” (or control) of fathers, brothers, or husbands, and which also place some restrictions on women’s public presence (although Iran is not at all as restrictive and segregated as Saudi Arabia). If you are from a liberal family or you made the right marital choice, you have more leeway.
There has been much progress for women in the past decades, especially in terms of the rising age at first marriage, lowered fertility, and educational attainment. Iranian women have had the benefit of significant educational attainment, with very high rates of university enrollments, but these have not been met with expanded employment opportunities. There is a respectable proportion of women in public services (including the civil service), but there is very high unemployment, even for university-educated women. Unemployment has only gotten worse with the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the Trump/Pompeo regime, which have had other adverse effects as well, especially on health, even before the pandemic struck. There is a tremendous reserve of unmet potential within Iran’s female population.
Iranian women love their country but are not happy with aspects of their lives, such as compulsory hejab (veiling) or restrictions on social interaction (such as mixed-sex parties). In the first decade of this century they launched an impressive grassroots campaign for a million signatures to change discriminatory laws. (This they learned from the successful Moroccan campaign of the early 1990s, thanks to the feminist brokerage of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, a transnational feminist network led by Mahnaz Afkhami.) Women had a huge presence in the 2009 Green Protests – the aftermath of the controversial presidential election whereby right-wing populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term in what was regarded as a rigged election. Although the Campaign had to stop and the Green Protests were repressed, Iranian women have continued to make brave public displays in defiance of, or liberation from, compulsory veiling. Most recently they launched their own version of the MeToo movement.
One can confidently state that all Iranian women were very hopeful that the 2015 nuclear agreement would result in both normalization of international relations and relaxation of social restrictions, as well as serious reforms in Iran in the direction of women’s full equality and equal citizenship. But the Trump administration upended that, dashing women’s dreams and turning them into nightmares. With the Trump/Pompeo sanctions, Iran can neither import nor export with ease, and even when it tried to sell some oil to Venezuela, the U.S. responded with what can only be called piracy on the high seas.
The Iranian people’s economic conditions have deteriorated significantly. Of course the Iranian regime has to take the blame for economic and financial mismanagement, but its mismanagement pales when compared to the effects of the harsh economic sanctions put in place by a country with inordinate control over the world’s financial system. The Iranian people, and the wellbeing of women, the elderly, children, and youth, are held hostage by U.S. polices and especially the sanctions. This is as far from a feminist foreign policy as one can imagine.
When Pompeo went to the UN Security Council to argue for the “snapback” provision of the JCPOA, which would re-impose all UN sanctions against Iran (as distinct from the unilateral U.S. economic sanctions), he received a humiliating rejection. The Security Council members voted against his proposal, pointing out that the U.S. had no standing, given that it had withdrawn from the agreement, and given also that Iran had agreed to allow monitors to inspect its facilities. This only made Pompeo react – as usual – in a rude and bullying manner. The sheer heartlessness of calling for more sanctions on top of the unilateral U.S. sanctions is mind=boggling. Iranian women do not want more sanctions. They desire reform in their own country, normalization internationally, and a peaceful neighborhood. They cannot enjoy that prospect with the Trump/Pompeo regime.
What Is To Be Done?
If Trump returns to power after the November presidential election, those of us in the feminist peace movement have even more work to do, building coalitions and alliances across borders to name and shame those policies that perpetuate war and suffering. We also need to insist on a reallocation of funding from the military toward improved public services. It will be difficult, as the past three years have been, but it is what we will have to do.
If, however, Joe Biden becomes the next U.S. president, we need to strongly urge a return to the JCPOA in the first 100 days, the lifting of sanctions against Iran (also Syria), and the start of negotiations for the end of hostilities and a return to normalization of relations. Normalization would enable the Iranian regime to move in the direction of much-needed internal reforms, including the repeal of gender-discriminatory laws. This might also pave the way for both Iran and the U.S. to finally ratify CEDAW and respect the global women’s rights agenda.
We also should call on the Biden administration to halt the sale of arms to countries that attack other countries. Such attacks, and the dispatch of weapons that encourages them, must stop for the sake of regional peace and stability. A feminist foreign policy on Iran, therefore, would prioritize diplomacy, international cooperation, and demilitarization as well as denuclearization. The longer-term outcomes are immeasurable, for Iran, the U.S., the Middle East region, and the world.
- Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993, 2003, 2013): all three editions have a chapter on Iran;
- Globalization and Social Movements: The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020): includes a chapter on global feminism and transnational feminist networks.
- Medea Benjamin, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: OR Books, 2018);
Reese Erlich, The Iran Agenda Today (Routledge, 2019);
- Anything written by Trita Parsi, former executive director of the National Iranian American Council and now with the Quincy Institute;
- Catherine Sameh, Axis of Hope: Iranian Women’s Rights across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019), which examines the One Million Signatures Campaign, its transnational character, and key activists;
- Nazanin Shahrokni, Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran (University of California Press, 2020), which dispels several stereotypes about gender segregation in Iran;
- The Women’s News Network, which carries news from Iran’s “Feminist School” and other relevant information. (See, e.g.)