By all accounts, women played a pivotal role in the rise to prominence and election of Barack Obama. It is, therefore, fitting that women play a key role in helping him address one of his greatest foreign policy challenges - the growing threat from Islamic extremists, particularly the ayatollahs in Iran.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike are eager to see Mr. Obama chart a new course which contains the calamity commonly known as Islamic fundamentalism. Iran is unique as the first country where fundamentalists managed to attain power and institutionalize their medieval worldview. A monopolistic, suppressive, dogmatic, misogynous, and terrorist political regime strives to preserve and expand the velayat-e-faqih (absolute rule of the clergy). Gender distinction and discrimination against women is an essential social and legal element.
Iran's misogynist state imposes gender inequality with a series of laws that go so far as to legalize the rape and murder of women. There are widespread arrests, torture, flogging, and stoning of women. In his November 2008 report, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern about "cases of stoning and public execution."
The ruling clerics' hatred of women is in part based on fear. Over 60% of Iran's 70 million population is under the age of thirty; nearly half are women. Additionally, in excess of 60% of university students are women. The paucity of professional and social opportunities and rampant discrimination fuel female dissent, creating a home-grown threat to the powers that be.
It should, of course, be emphasized that the Tehran regime's sadistic hostility to women, as well as the velayat-e faqih system itself, are diametrically opposed to Islam. The principle of equality; regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity, is among the pillars of Islamic belief. According to the genuine message of Islam, women must have equal participation in political leadership.
Tehran's regional influence has certainly been fueled by its unique ideological regimen, and the hesitant Western reaction to it. To advance it regional hegemony, the regime is hurtling full speed ahead to develop nuclear weapons. Its survival depends on continued perpetuation of domestic repression - particularly against women, and export of fundamentalism and terrorism.
Ignoring these fundamental features of Iran's theocracy, successive U.S. administrations sought to engage Iran with the hope of altering the regime's behavior. None, however, has truly engaged the Iranian people, or more specifically Iran's women and their undeniable movement for change.
Currently 3,500 members of the main Iranian opposition reside in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where they have been recognized as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Nearly 1,000 are women; many of them spent years in Iranian prisons and subjected to torture, others escaped the country after Tehran sought leaders of anti-government student demonstrations. Ashraf residents have been under the protection of the United States military since 2003. As Tehran ramps up pressure to extradite or disperse its primary opponents from Iraq, and in light of the approval of the SOFA agreement, the U.S. must continue its protection of Iranian dissidents to avoid a major humanitarian tragedy.
The least costly and most effective way to bring about change in Iran is to rely on the strength of the Iranian people, its women, and its organized resistance for democratic change.
In charting a new course, Mr. Obama's administration, U.S. interests, and indeed the cause of democracy in Iran will be well served if the lessons of history are heeded. As World War II loomed, Winston Churchill cautioned against appeasement of Hitler's regime. But many, including British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, advocated engagement with Germany. Ultimately the agreement Britain signed with Hitler allowed his expansionist machine vital time to prepare, before he launched his aggression in Europe.
As the world community increasingly realizes that Iran's rulers are illegitimate, it must also recognize the legitimacy of the democratic alternative. Coupled with increased international diplomacy, President-elect Obama should look to Iranian women and their organized democratic opposition as a partner in seeking the establishment of democracy in Iran and stability in the region.
Soona Samsami is the Executive Director of Women Freedom Forum. Until 2003, she was the US Representative of parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.