On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington assembled an all-star panel of analysts for perspective on the role of women in the recent Iran election and post-election upheaval.

Among the participants: Pari Esfandiari of IranDokht.com, a web site that describes itself as “an online media platform that connects the global community to Iranian women”; Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of Iran’s parliament (2000-2004); Nayereh Tohidi, a Cal State professor; Norma Moruzzi, a professor from the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, from Vienna, a physician, activist, and vice president of innerChange Associates.

The moderator was Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center, whose 2007 arrest in Iran made headlines around the world. So strong is the women’s movement that a web site linked to Iran’s intelligence ministry has begun referring to “woman commandos” in describing post-election protests, according to Haleh Esfandiari, who added that there are reports that Zahra Rahnavard, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s well-known activist wife, is the leading voice behind the scenes urging Mousavi not to accede to pressure to halt his campaign against the election results. (So well known is Zahra Rahnavard that, when Mousavi became prime minister in the 1980s it was said in Iran that “Rahnavard’s husband was named prime minister.”)

The panel answered a lot of questions about the role of women in Iran today — and left some questions hanging.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, who quit her term in parliament in 2004 to protest against the Guardian Council’s peremptory banning of hundreds of political candidates — including not less than 80 members of parliament! — in that year’s election, described women in Iran as being on the “front lines” of the Green Movement and the election battles. Often, she said, they protected men from being beaten in the streets, and they formed ad hoc groups such as Mothers in Mourning or Peace Mothers to demonstrate at places like Evin Prison, where many protestors are being held.

Most interesting was the panel’s emphasis on the fact that the women’s movement in Iran didn’t arise out of nowhere to prominence in the Green Movement but was, in fact, a long time in the works. Tohidi said women in Iran had been engaged in many years of quiet educational and organizational work, especially over the past fifteen years, and today the women’s movement in Iran is the “strongest in the Middle East.” Some of them, she said, were Islamists who have been formulating a more progressive and liberal version of “Islamic feminism” while others are secular women who’ve moved far beyond Iran’s culture of revolutionary Islam. The two currents came together in 1997 in the massive vote that elected President Khatami, and since then they’ve brought strong pressure to bear on subsequent candidates. Jaleh Lackner-Gohari added that during the 1980s and 1990s, many women went into higher education and the professions precsiely because they were barred from politics and, she joked, “had nothing better to do.” Quietly, they built networks, professional organizations, and channels for communications — including, lately, blogs.

Norma Moruzzi, who’s made numerous visits to Iran since 1997, stressed that women have jsut about reached parity with men, when measured in terms of metrics such as literacy. In 1980, she said, about half of Iranians could read and write, but the total favored men by 60 percent to 38 percent; by 2000, 92 percent of women were literate, compared to 96 percent for men. (In universities, neaerly two-thirds of students are women.) One paradox cited by Moruzzi: despite the regime’s patriarchal laws that limit women’s privileges and rights in areas such as dress, inheritance laws, and so on, since 1979 Iran has invested in education, health care, and family planning, in a way that has allowed women to flourish.

Pari Esfandiari — no relation to Haleh Esfandiari — noted the image of women in Iran is now vastly different worldwide. She drew a contrast between the movie, “The Stoning of Soraya M,” a viscerally brutal film about the stoning to death of a woman in Iran, and the fact that in the post-election confrontations with the security forces in Iran many women were filmed throwing stones at members of the Revolutionary Guard, i.e., they aren’t victims. Like other speakers, Esfandiari noted that women in professional organizations were a crucial part of the pro-Reformist coalition that supported Mousavi and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, in 2009. Moruzzi noted that Iranian women formed behind-the-scenes pressure groups to meet with and grill candidates’ aides, getting them to answer questions and fill out questionnaires about their attitudes towards women’s issues.

Left unsaid, however, was the issue of: what now? Where does all this energy go, in a society in which nearly all levers of actual power — in the government, in the (all-male) clergy, among military and Guard commanders, and virtually all of the regime’s constitutional institutions — are dominated by men, and reactionary ones at that?

And, when I asked about President Obama’s options now, the entire panel came out against US engagement with Iran, for fear that by so doing the United States will “legitimize” the regime. “Now is not the time for Obama to sit down with this government,” said Moruzzi. She suggested that the leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad see talks with the United States as the “big carrot” that could restore their discredited regime to legitimacy. Others on the panel agreed. “They should not be invited to international meetings,” said Jaleh Lackner-Gohari. “We should not negoitiate with the Ahmadinejad government,” insisted Nayereh Tohidi.

To me, this is utterly wrongheaded, and self-defeating. If Iran wants to talk, President Obama can embrace such talks on a realist, state-to-state basis, without endorsing the regime’s bad behavior. To reject an offer from Iran to talk, now, would fatally undermine Obama’s carefully constructed opening to Tehran, pushing Iran deeper into isolation, strengthening the hand of the radical right, and weakening the very reform movement that human rights groups want to enhance. Indeed, it was Obama’s opening to Iran since January that was partly responsible for the strength and ferocity of the opposition movement in Iran, as countless men and women told me during my two-week trip to Iran in June.

Part of the reason why the panel of women at the Wilson Center oppose US-Iran dialogue now is that many of them expect that the regime might collapse in the near-term. I disagree. Based on what we know now, it’s more than likely that the regime will maintain control for a prolonged period to come, perhaps years. The opposition movement isn’t dead, and it’s not going away. But I’d venture a guess that Ahmadinejad will complete his four-year term. And the world can’t wait for the regime to collapse. We’re going to have to hold our collective noses and do business with these guys.