American commentators and politicians love to opine about Iran. Everyday there are more articles and op-eds by so-called 'experts' on what to do about the nuclear issue, Iran's influence in Iraq, religious extremism, etc. I would like to offer my perspective as an Iranian woman, with deep knowledge and understanding of her own people and its leadership about what the future course should be for American policy towards Iran.
As one who left my native Iran in the wake of the fall of the Shah in 1979 and came back, periodically, to find a foreign and dark country based on religious rule and intolerance, I know first-hand, what people on the street are thinking and feeling about a nation that has become increasingly isolated, aggressive and intolerant. My country is run by illegitimate and despotic extremists who silence dissent, imprison opponents, and crackdown on anyone who challenges the status quo. Last spring's release of the American-Iranian scholar, Haleh Esfandiari from a Teheran prison, was positive--but it was followed by more round-ups of students and scholars, journalists and pro-democracy activists, seeking to express themselves, freely.
So, for example, while Americans debate the wisdom of electing a woman President, Iranian women live with the reality that the Constitutions bans women from holding the office of President. Yes, we have 9 female parliamentarians in the Majlis, the Islamic Consultative Assembly -- the Iranian parliament) but they hold little sway over the government. Yes, we have women writers and professors -- but they pay a heavy price for speaking out. Women are banned from many walks of life -- relegated to raising children who are taught not to challenge authority.
Iranian misbehavior extends beyond its treatment of Iranians inside the country to those around the world. Take Iraq, where over 3,500 Iranians, who are political refugees, protected under the Geneva Convention, live at Camp Ashraf in Asraf City, Iraq. These pro-democracy Iranians are continuously subjected to harsh threats of expulsion because of Iranian government demands on the Iraqi government.
Beyond the Iranian community, the mullahs in Teheran are directing a campaign of extremism that affects U.S. troops who continue to face the backlash of Iranian-supported militias in Iraq where support for terrorists continues through an infusion of money and arms.
So what can America do? The answer is not war, even though there are some in America who beat the war drums. But neither is the prevailing Western policy, which has relied, hopelessly, on "constructive engagement" to change the behavior of the Iranian regime, effective. We need a firm policy that meets the escalation of the threat from Iran. As Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian opposition leader, said in her speech to the European Parliament last year, "neither war nor pacification of Tehran's religious extremists holds the answer."
The current U.S. strategy towards Iran has failed because it ignores the immense power of the disenchanted people of Iran. Unlike some of its neighbors, Iran has a history dotted with periods of genuine democracy. Today, the Iranian people are endowed with democratic aspirations and a well organized, capable, resistance movement that needs support. As a matter of necessity, U.S. strategy towards Iran must include empowering the Iranian people. On that score, the United States cannot seem ambivalent, publicly or privately. The Iranian people have demonstrated that they are willing to take on a ruling regime that is violent and expansionist because of its weakness. Decisiveness is key in expressing American support for the willingness of people to challenge their rulers. We need statements and actions that reflect American support for democracy groups that are pressing for change inside Iran.
It has been 30 years since the United States has had relations with Iran. In those decades, the Iranian people, despite being silenced, have let the world know that they are unwilling to live with religious zealotry and control. Now the world must get behind them and give them the tools and resources to gain back their freedom.
Soona Samsani is Executive Director of Women's Freedom Forum, Inc. which promotes change in Iran.