Soheila Vahdati

(WOMENSENEWS)–The making of the new U.S. cabinet is being followed closely not only by Americans, but by people the world over, including Iranians.

For many of us, President-elect Barack Obama’s willingness to directly talk with Iran without preconditions brings hope of more international contact and moderating influences over everything in Iran, including the cultural attitude toward women.

But last week, his pick for secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Clinton, gave pause after what we heard from her as a presidential candidate.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton said in an interview in April 2008 when asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

For Clinton’s Iranian female spectators–many of us who had fond feelings toward her from her days as first lady–being subject to this threatened obliteration was a nasty jolt.

While we are well aware of the furor caused by Iran’s enriched uranium program–and the weight of opinion behind the suspicion of it being for nuclear weapons–we were nonetheless shocked by the reckless and violent threat.

Remembering the Rights Activist

This, after all, was a person we knew from far less bellicose days. This was the same person who emphasized women’s rights as human rights in her speech at the World’s Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. This was the person who initiated Vital Voices Democracy Initiative in 1997, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to promote women to leading national political roles. When you support international women’s rights, you implicitly support the right for women in those countries to live and pursue their work.

But since those earlier days Clinton, as a presidential candidate, has become an alarming figure for Iranians struggling to put their country back on the path to moderation. In 2006 she called for United Nations economic sanctions against Iran, which only hardened support for the anti-U.S. posture.

In September 2007 Clinton voted in favor of a Senate measure declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps–a part of Iran’s military–a terrorist organization. Terrorism, by definition, pertains to non-state actors, so the measure undermined Iran’s sovereignty and could be interpreted to give Bush authority to use military action against Iran.

Clinton also persistently called on Bush to keep "all options"–open code for including nuclear retaliation–on the table with respect to Iran.

Obama has spoken encouragingly of joining a revived push to disarm the world of nuclear weapons, but Clinton’s rhetoric casts a chill over that crucial quest for global security.

Mistaking a Deep Failure

In May a CNN-Opinion Research survey found George. W. Bush’s approval rating down to 28 percent and CNN’s polling director called it an all-time low for any U.S. president. His militaristic foreign policy certainly must have factored into that rating, but Clinton did not seem to grasp the depth of this failure.

Now, the question is, can she take a different tack? The answer will certainly affect her old allies in the international women’s movement.

Women’s rights activism in Iran is thriving as a stronghold for human rights and an essential component of the movement for democracy. It forms an important opposition to the ruling fundamentalist faction and its "sacred" religious laws and regulations.

The regime is trying to confine women to their homes by glorifying motherhood as women’s first and foremost god-given duty, and imposing harsh restrictions on women, from gender segregation to lawful discrimination in employment. Yet, women continue to demand their rights as equal citizens, increasing their high rate of education enrollment and penetrating into all corners of the job market.

Iranian reform advocates and women’s rights activists know that a military attack on Iran could endanger not only their achievements, but also their species, as it has in Iraq.

The Islamic constitution of Iraq and the comeback of the Taliban in Afghanistan are living proof that religious fundamentalism grows tremendously in areas of tension and conflict and the presence of U.S. troops. This volatile combination takes women’s rights as its first victim.

The 1970 Iraqi constitution gave women equity and liberty unmatched in the Muslim world. But the new Iraqi constitution identified Islam as a fundamental source of legislation, which has had the effect of making polygamy legal. Women’s organizations are practically non-existent today. Some women’s rights activists, including members of the parliament, have been shot.

Clearly, the United States may not be quick to invade another country after the protracted war in Iraq. Most observers predict it would instead choose to launch an aerial attack on Iran.

Such an attack–or even serious threat of it–will strengthen the fundamentalist faction within the regime, which in turn will take a harder stance not only against the United States but also against democratic values, civil liberties and women’s rights.

Iran Is Pivotal Nation

Iran is a key state in the region and Clinton’s way of dealing with the nation perhaps will be pivotal to a new U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Iran has great potential to move in two opposite directions.

If civil-society factions can be encouraged, they could move it forward as a model for Muslim democracy, allowing women to continue their struggle for their rights and achieve them step by step. This would help the United States stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and pave the road for a stronger women’s movement in those countries as well. This would provide a real opportunity for women’s rights movements in the Middle East to gradually grow into a critical mass.

On the other hand, Iran could become the political leader and ideological headquarters of Islamic fundamentalism in the world and, hence, the strongest threat to women’s rights in the region.

Now the question for many women’s rights defenders is which way Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state will push one of those two directions. Will she bolster moderate factions and bolster the prospect of hope for women’s rights and democracy? Or will she insist on tough rhetoric, military force and fostering a reactionary society in Iran?

In Iran, women watch and wait.

Dr. Soheila Vahdati is an Iranian-American human rights activist and a freelancer based in California who writes about the death penalty, Iranian women’s human rights and gender issues.