Cornelius Adebahr is a nonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on foreign and security policy, in particular regarding Iran and the Persian Gulf, as well as on European and trans-Atlantic affairs and citizens’ engagement. Barbara Mittelhammer is an independent political analyst and consultant based in Berlin. She focuses on human security as well as on gender, peace, and security. Both recently authored a Carnegie paper titled, “A Feminist Foreign Policy to Deal With Iran? Assessing the EU’s Options.” Diwan interviewed them in early December to discuss the themes of their paper.
Michael Young: What is the main argument in your recent Carnegie paper on the need for the European Union to adopt a feminist foreign policy toward Iran?
Cornelius Adebahr: Our conclusion is twofold and rather fundamental: It is time for a paradigm shift in European foreign policy when dealing with perceived security threats, and better policies start at home. The first demands the type of new thinking that comes with the feminist approach, which looks holistically at a situation to uncover underlying power relations, including but also going beyond gender inequalities as well as their detrimental effects for society as a whole. This, in turn, calls for more diversity inside European policymaking circles at both the level of the European Union and of member states, as well as better involvement of civil society in planning and implementing policies.
Barbara Mittelhammer: Though gender equality is a fundamental principle of the EU, most European foreign policymaking is gender-blind. That is to the EU’s own disadvantage, because gender-equal and diverse policymaking leads to better outcomes.
MY: You state that, in light of the possible revival of the nuclear deal with Iran, the EU must expand its “repertoire” in dealing with Tehran. But how realistic is this on women’s rights given what you call the “state-centered, U.S.-dominated, security-focused mold” will likely overshadow all other considerations?
CA: Reviving the nuclear deal is, on paper, straightforward. It’s about the United States and Iran going back to complying with what they agreed upon five years ago. A feminist foreign policy would further aim to prepare the ground for wider negotiations—in terms of topics and participant states—meant to follow this initial understanding.
BM: And just because you mention women’s rights, these are of course part and parcel of the feminist approach, yet the latter should not be reduced to such questions. Realizing gender equality can, for example, mean applying a gendered perspective on economic support and humanitarian relief programs to empower women and other vulnerable groups that have been hit hard by both economic sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic.
MY: Can you outline what it would actually mean to look at “hard security” issues, such as nuclear proliferation and regional military escalation, from a feminist perspective? In other words is there such a thing as a feminist approach to security or foreign policy? And if so what does it entail?
BA: There is a long history of women’s peace activism, feminist thinking, and critical approaches to international affairs that have contributed to what we call today a feminist foreign policy. It is based on the fundamental principle of gender equality and awareness of the fact that, until today, policymaking, including foreign policymaking, has failed to include and consider the voices, needs, and interests of all those affected—girls, boys, women, and men alike. This approach not only serves to analyze and inform policymaking, but also to guide the programmatic work of governments around the world.
The feminist approach refutes the differentiation between “hard” and “soft” security as highly gendered and falsely prioritizing. Far too often, societies—in particular women and other marginalized groups—have suffered from the purported defense against “hard” security threats. Instead, feminist foreign policy is rooted in a positive concept of peace and security that includes dimensions of human security, such as equitable and sustainable development as well as social cohesion. It also points to the fact that sustainable peace can only be achieved if all those dimensions are addressed.
CA: The feminist approach strongly deemphasizes military and other coercive measures as a means of achieving security. Their acceptance as legitimate political instruments is highly contested among feminist scholars and practitioners. However, if and when the use of force is applied, it would have to be based on gender-aware context analysis and accompanied by measures that address structural factors that led to the escalation in the first place.
With regard to nuclear weapons and their proliferation, feminist foreign policy calls for the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction, while criticizing the existing nonproliferation regime for its built-in privileges favoring the officially recognized nuclear weapons states. These countries’ refusal to give up the bomb while preventing others from acquiring it reproduces an unjust and hierarchical international order, which should be corrected to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.
MY: You advocate for greater EU assertiveness in the world. Yet when it comes to advancing a more feminist foreign policy toward Iran, how does this ambition for greater assertiveness fit in with what you describe as the “gendered bias inherent in the terminology of power”?
BM: This is a particular tricky point, especially for the European Union. Its intrinsic disposition for multilateral cooperation instead of engaging in power plays has sometimes been portrayed in gendered terms, such as the infamous comparison between the United States as “Mars” and Europe as “Venus.” With great power competition seemingly taking over the global order, the EU feels compelled to “learn the language of power,” as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. However, “greater assertiveness” should not be equated with the ability to dominate militarily, but rather should be understood as acting smartly, strategically, and sustainably.
CA: Feminist foreign policy begins with critical self-reflection to allow for a more complete picture of the challenges ahead. With a broad understanding of security, by decoding (international) power relations, and by recognizing the political agency of women and other marginalized groups, it offers a more effective and sustainable approach. Moreover, it is about inclusive decisionmaking representing all those impacted by the results—not just because it is a fundamental right, but also because it produces better outcomes.
MY: What would a feminist EU foreign policy toward Iran actually look like?
CA: In light of spiraling escalations around the Persian Gulf, policymakers need to look for a comprehensive and sustainable strategy of regional deescalation. Preemptive deterrence and military means have failed to provide this. A feminist approach, in turn, would look beyond power rivalries and the nuclear file to opportunities for cooperation and how to achieve long-term objectives. Feminist foreign policy begins at home. To start, the EU has to ensure that its strategies and policies do not re-create inherent gender inequalities.
BM: With regard to Iran policy, this implies three key changes: First, the EU should broaden and regionalize its approach. In fact, the devastating Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for trust-building among regional actors through health and human security. Environmental issues and in particular maritime affairs around the Persian Gulf are also of mutual interest to littoral states. Such efforts can help feed informal track-two diplomacy with a view to discussing regional security issues. Also, targeted economic support, such as for the services sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, promises to have beneficial effects for women in particular and society as a whole. The election of a new U.S. president creates the possibility of including such broader topics into a trans-Atlantic approach rather than having the Europeans defend against aggressive U.S. policies.
Second, the EU should dismantle barriers to the representation and participation of women and other marginalized groups in EU foreign policymaking. On the internal EU side, gender awareness calls for an assessment of any of the means and instruments applied in terms of their gendered impact on the ground. This is obviously true for the EU’s increased use of sanctions in general (and against Iran between 2006 and 2015). Additionally, the EU needs to ensure gender-equal and more diverse decisionmaking on all levels. In essence, this is about achieving better outcomes.
And third, strengthening and working with European and Iranian civil society allow for more holistic policy inputs as well as a more lasting impact on the ground. This is not limited to supporting women’s organizations, which is hard to do in Iran where feminism is a political taboo, but includes social and environmental groups.