External Publications

Dec 07, 2020

A Feminist Foreign Policy to Deal with Iran?

Assessing the EU’s Options

Disputed nuclear activities, regional proxy wars, and a regime built on discrimination against women and other marginalized groups: Iran hardly seems like a policy field that would be amenable to a feminist approach. Yet this is precisely what the European Union (EU) needs today: fresh thinking to help develop a new strategy toward Iran. Feminist foreign policy critically reflects international power structures, focuses on the needs of all groups of people, and puts human security and human rights at the center of the discussion.


The original publication contains footnotes, which have been excluded from this entry. To read the full paper, download the article here.

Applying a feminist lens to the EU policy toward Iran and the Persian Gulf region can improve foreign policy thinking and practice. This approach builds on three central principles of feminist perspectives on diplomacy and security:

  • Broadening the understanding of security
  • Decoding (international) power relations
  • Recognizing women’s political agency

Feminist foreign policy begins at home. To start with, the EU would need to ensure that its strategies and policies do not recreate inherent gender inequalities, such as those found in the gendered and prioritizing distinction between “hard” and “soft” power. This critical method includes considering the impact of an oftentimes securitized foreign policy on the ground, and an honest reckoning with the use of broad economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool. In the long run, a critical reflection of the EU’s global role would have to include a reassessment of member states’ diverse positions on nuclear weapons.

With regard to its current Iran policy, the EU should therefore implement three key changes:

  • Broaden and regionalize the approach, which implies a fundamental shift away from the current focus on nuclear concerns to include issues like the environment, migration, and pandemic relief. Such a wider notion of security will not only allow the EU to facilitate regional discussions on myriad issues but also open the way to indirectly support women’s organizations in Iran. Precisely because of Tehran’s dismal record on women’s rights, EU policy toward Iran should be particularly gender aware.
  • Decrease barriers to representation and participation of women and other marginalized actors in EU foreign policy making. On top of promoting diversity in numbers, this response requires cultural change to overcome a gender-stereotypical security discourse that inherently limits policy options. The EU needs to substantially transform its organizational setup in order to facilitate equal representation and a more gender-aware allocation of resources.
  • Strengthen and work with civil society at home and abroad. The EU should aim to include civil society voices and local actors, such as Iranian or European women’s networks, in the development of Iran-specific or regional strategies.


In 2016, a brief window of opportunity opened on what has come to be seen as the Iran file in international affairs. The beginning implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January that year took the looming threat from Iran’s disputed nuclear program off the table and allowed Europe in particular to broaden its approach to engagement with Iran. However, the U.S. presidential election in November that year changed the course of events, Donald Trump’s incoming administration’s rejection of its predecessor’s policies foreshadowed the coming “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran—which would begin in earnest with Washington’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.

Four years later, the mutual hostilities have only worsened. The U.S. attempt to reinstate United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iran, although unsuccessful, seemed to be a final attempt to destroy the nuclear deal. At the same time, Iran has skirted its own obligations under the agreement, all while provoking further conflict and escalation in the region. To date, the European Union (EU) has sought to uphold the deal, but it has been unable to counter the stringent U.S. sanctions regime against Iran.

While the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president opens up the spectrum to rethink current strategies, even a Democratic White House does not mean an easy return to the status quo ante. The Europeans should therefore focus on finding a way to strengthen their room of maneuver and broaden their political repertoire. This is particularly true in the face of further worrisome trends converging on Iran and its neighbors: proxy wars are heating up, and the great power rivalries of the United States, China, and Russia are stirring up greater strife in the wider Persian Gulf region.

A feminist foreign policy promises a wholly different perspective on the matter and potentially offers new solutions, brought to light by looking at security in a more holistic way and incorporating the effects of its policies on people (including women and other marginalized groups) on the ground.

Interestingly, female negotiators played a crucial role in concluding the JCPOA. On the EU side, first Catherine Ashton and then Federica Mogherini served as the EU high representative, and throughout the process Helga Schmid headed the negotiation team from the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s quasi-foreign ministry. On the U.S. side, Wendy Sherman served as the lead negotiator. However, the presence and central role of women in the negotiations has not rendered the EU’s overall Iran policy feminist.

There currently is strong momentum to test such an approach on the matter. The year 2020 is a pivotal time for gender equality and women’s rights. It marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform; the twentieth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS); and the tenth anniversary of UN Women, the agency responsible for the UN’s work on gender equality and women’s empowerment. It is also the fifth anniversary of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which gender equality is a key goal.

EU-level policy considerations have to some extent shown a stronger interest in and progress on gender equality and even feminist foreign policy. Several analyses have focused on evaluating the EU’s foreign policy from a feminist perspective with recommendations on how to develop and implement a comprehensive feminist foreign policy framework for the EU. On October 22, 2020, the European Parliament debated necessary reforms and instruments to achieve gender equality in EU foreign and security policy based on a report put forward by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Yet the EU’s policies are far from being gender aware, and its Iran strategy certainly does not take the need of all genders into account.

So what would a feminist perspective on the EU’s strategy toward Iran look like? A specific analysis of the nuclear file from a feminist perspective has not been pursued so far, but feminist thought has made a damning assessment of weapons of mass destruction in general (for more on this, see the text box further down). The analysis in this paper breaks down such broad assumptions to find answers to the specific challenges of the Iran file. It highlights the importance of looking at “hard security” topics such a nuclear nonproliferation and regional military escalation from a feminist perspective. This specific approach should contribute to a programmatic refinement of feminist foreign policy as such and to efforts to strengthen the debate between feminist analysts and the “traditional” security community.

This paper focuses on and seeks to inform EU policymaking. It does not analyze the situation of women, or feminism, in Iran as a whole. However, women’s rights activists have long been drivers of social change in Iran. The women’s movement in Iran is by no means limited to the fight against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, though this issue remains a prominent example. In recent years, women have led acts of civil disobedience on a scale rarely seen since the Islamic Revolution in 1978–1979.

Currently, Iran also has a growing MeToo movement, which has sparked a much wider civic discussion about sexual violence and harassment in the wake of severe allegations that have been made against some of the country’s prominent public figures. These important developments are not considered further here, but they undoubtedly can help to inform EU policymaking.

Moreover, examining a feminist approach for European Iran policy does not in any way imply positioning the EU as savior of Iranian women. Nor does it mean that such a policy can only be executed by women. Instead, a feminist foreign policy considers the agency of women and other marginalized groups in and of themselves, something every policymaker can and should do. It simply takes society as a whole into account, whether considering policy at home or abroad.


Feminist foreign policy is based on the recognition that women and men experience conflict and war differently. Because of their currently different roles and positions in society, they face different consequences from war and also contribute differently to peacebuilding. Traditional approaches to foreign and security policy, by contrast, are in essence gender blind and do not consider these differences on any real scale. This imbalance leads to incomplete political analyses and continued gender inequalities.

Although the concept of feminist foreign policy as a political framework is relatively new, feminist approaches to international affairs are rooted in a tradition of feminist thinking and women’s peace activism dating back to World War I. At the heart of this tradition lies the fundamental principle of gender equality, as well as awareness of the fact that, until today, (foreign) policymaking has failed to include and consider the voices, needs, and interests of all affected—girls, boys, men, and women alike. Feminist academics and practitioners have stimulated one another over past decades: from fighting for women’s rights and feminist peace at both domestic and international levels to the gender turn in social sciences, and from grassroots movements leading on the WPS agenda to progressive governments declaring their foreign policies to be feminist.

Gender equality is first and foremost a human right in itself. At the same time, it is beneficial for society as a whole. Research strongly indicates that gender equality contributes to the economic and social development of a country, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement not only of national security but international peace. More concretely, the participation of women in peace negotiations increases the durability of peace agreements and the quality of peace. Peace negotiations in which women play key roles place less emphasis on purely military aspects and instead facilitate agreements aimed at political, social, and economic reforms; greater progress; and sustainable ways to create more equal, stable, and peaceful societies. In line with a broader understanding of peace and security, and of women as active peacebuilders and not only victims of violence, inclusive security paves the way for sustainable and comprehensive conflict resolution.

Feminist foreign policy as political program builds upon a framework of human rights, women’s rights, and the WPS agenda. The latter is specified in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions, which focus on the protection of women and girls from conflict and related gender-based violence, and the inclusion of women in all phases of conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding. Moreover, “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment” forms a standalone part of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development (Goal 5).