On 21 May 2018, less than two weeks after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched Washington’s “New Iran Strategy” before an audience at the Heritage Foundation. In his remarks, he insisted that Iranian women’s long struggle for inclusion and equality matters dearly to Washington. As if to prove the point, the U.S. State Department’s social media feeds since that day have interspersed announcements of new choking sanctions with twinkling reminders of Iranian women’s potential (“Congratulations to Iranian-American and new #NASA Astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli!”). In January 2020, the State Department released a two-minute video on the history of Iranian women’s rights. To a melody of maudlin piano and soaring strings, the video sweeps viewers past scenes of bare-headed women in silk blouses, wistfully recalling an era when Iran’s women purportedly “enjoyed freedom and equal opportunity”, before shifting to dark footage from after the 1979 revolution, when “women’s rights in #Iran…regressed”. No Iranian woman from either era actually speaks in the video, about either the Shah’s regime or the Islamic Republic. But the final caption promises nevertheless: “The women of the U.S. will stand with the women of Iran”.
Washington’s evocation of Iranian women and their aspirations has become a feature of its marketing for “maximum pressure” – the campaign of economic coercion aimed at precipitating Iranian capitulation to U.S. demands or regime collapse. The marketing is stunning for its hypocrisy, focused as it is on the plight of Iranian women even as it says nothing about the injustices women face at the hands of Middle Eastern governments allied with the U.S. Moreover, as Washington has widened its claim that the Islamic Republic disallows any space for women, it has grown more detached from reality. One tweet this past December maintained that the Iranian regime denies women the opportunity to “participate in public life” – during a month when Iranian female directors and actors were shining at the Tehran film festival. Women have long been engaged in almost every aspect of Iranian public life from politics to political activism and from diplomacy to flying planes and driving heavy trucks. But perhaps the most regrettable feature of this U.S. policy spotlighting the suppression of Iranian women’s rights is that it has damaged the activism and independence of the very women it claims to support.
Of course, and despite women’s prominence in public life, the Islamic Republic has a long and dismal record of keeping Iranian women second-class citizens in terms of civil and personal rights. The surge of women into higher education and the work force that accompanied the 1979 revolution galvanised women to demand more legal and social equality, not less. Yet the state has, for decades, defended a status quo of discriminatory laws like mandatory hijab. It was only in December 2019, under international pressure, that Iran’s Football Federation committed to allowing women to attend matches in the domestic club league. Restrictions on women’s public conduct and appearance have sown increasing resentment and alienation, especially among millennial women and girls, who are less inclined than their elders to view the relaxation of rules as sufficient progress. As one 19-year-old sports champion put it: “My generation wants [dress codes] removed. We compare ourselves to the rest of the world, where everyone is modernising and evolving, and we find this strictness ridiculous”.
For much of the past two decades, the Iranian women’s movement has encompassed diverse strands of activism: there have been radical and gradualist wings, single-issue campaigns seeking an end to mandatory hijab or access to sports stadiums, drives to reform divorce and domestic violence laws, and grassroots efforts aimed at mobilising rural and working-class women behind such legal changes. On occasion, these different currents have brought their particular struggles into the streets and endured crackdowns, before shifting course. The authorities have never smiled upon women’s activism, and every subset of the women’s movement, from state-affiliated religious feminists to secular-minded organisers, has encountered some level of official hostility and obstruction. The authorities’ intolerance for women’s organising has grown so severe in recent years that most of the movement’s luminaries are now in prison, in exile abroad or in a self-imposed state of quiescence. But the state’s response has not been limited to repression. At times, it has grudgingly tolerated – and even conceded to – women’s demands as a reality with powerful electoral implications. Women’s turnout has been critical to presidential wins by more moderate candidates since the late 1990s, and politicians now regularly emphasise women’s concerns when courting voters.
The Trump administration is trying to appropriate the Iranian women’s cause. Whether they are skirmishing with authorities in anti-hijab street confrontations, joining labour protests, such as last year’s May Day demonstrations, or agitating against the government’s November hike in fuel prices, women have been active in airing specific grievances. Most demonstrators have pointedly demanded an end to hijab laws, but they have received loud support – whether solicited or not – from anti-regime voices in Washington and among certain Iranian opposition figures outside the country, whose objective is toppling the regime. If this external pressure was supposed to help, there is little evidence that it achieved its goal. Iran’s security apparatus, under siege and suspicious of citizens’ real or imagined links with the outside world, has over the past year doled out some of the severestsentences for women activists in recent memory.
In the 2000s and 2010s, Iranian women waged sophisticated and far-ranging battles against both discriminatory laws and the patriarchal culture, shared by men and women alike, from which those laws partly emanate. But in recent months, all those intense and public rows among women, between generations of activists with varying priorities, over whether the most suitable terrain was the family living room, one’s personal relationship or the public street corner, have fallen eerily silent. Internal debate among women activists in Iran now is largely about the frightening, pervasive threats to the country’s security and well-being.
A sanctions campaign as broad and blunt as that which the U.S. has built up is bound to have inadvertent consequences for the target population. As the economy reels from sanctions, women entrepreneurs, particularly those in cash-based or service industries, have been particularly hard-hit. The 2010s saw a flourishing of women-owned businesses, with successes piling up in sectors women found themselves able to enter – from online clothing sales to cafés and restaurants. Those sectors might have appealed to women because they could better control their hours and workload, sidestep workplace exploitation or harassment, or discover opportunities for real economic advancement.
But as the Iranian currency began to sink in value in the summer of 2018, first in response to the Trump administration withdrawing from the nuclear deal, and then more precipitously, in anticipation of increasingly severe sanctions, sometimes falling by double digits in a single day, families coped by cutting back on leisure spending, on everything from clothes to hair salons to eating out. Small shops and retailers saw their revenue drop, while their rents skyrocketed. “Many women I know, often younger women who used to be activists or journalists and had turned to running cafés, are now going out of business”, said Sussan Tahmasebi, a long-time civil society activist who retains close ties with women counterparts in Iran. “They’re not just losing economically, but losing that liberating force of being able to be financially independent”.
Sanctions have also forced tens of foreign firms to close shop and lay off Iranian workers. These companies tended to offer forward-thinking and empowering workspaces for women, setting high standards – everything from attractive salaries to more professional management and expected conduct – that Iranian companies would have to match. Some organised anti-sexual harassment training for employees, to bring them in line with minimal codes of conduct in European firms. Sanctions halted that progress.
The record thus appears clear: by imposing stifling sanctions, the Trump administration has deprived Iranian women of economic empowerment and the social independence that can accompany it; by politicising the women’s movement in the service of its own goals, it has exposed them to graver danger; and by zeroing in on women’s rights in Iran while it ignores them elsewhere in the Middle East, it has highlighted its own insincerity. The monumental challenges that Iranian women face in fighting their government’s discriminatory laws and repressive policies are difficult enough without the debilitating impact of sanctions. If they could collectively send a message to Washington, they might draw from the words of the thirteenth-century Persian poet, Sa’adi, who said: “I do not expect any favours from you. Just do no harm”.
Ali Vaez is Crisis Group's Iran Project Director. Consulting closely with all sides in the nuclear negotiations for the past few years as our former Iran Senior Analyst, he led Crisis Group’s efforts in helping to bridge the gaps between Iran and the P5+1 and is renowned as one of the foremost experts on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.