The nationwide uprising in Iran has reached more than 170 cities across all 31 provinces in just three weeks. With women leading the anti-regime charge, and the country's youth backing them in the streets, the message to Washington is clear: democratic change by the Iranian people is happening now and must be supported by U.S. authorities.

Tehran's cowardly efforts to contain the countrywide unrest through extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, and the curtailment of Internet freedom are tactics intended to convey strength and invoke anxiety. But the rapidly metastasizing protests have only exposed the regime's principal weakness: its misogynistic foundation.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, are now confronted by their worst fear – a popular resistance movement spearheaded by the women of Iran. The death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, may have sparked the initial revolt in the northwestern Kurdish province but the insurrection quickly spread across the country. In Tehran alone, the regime's security forces clashed with protesters in more than 21 localities in a single day. Popular slogans like "Death to Khamenei and Raisi" and "from Kurdistan to Tehran, that is the voice of Iran" have taken root. "Unity, resistance, and victory" – a chant implying that those opposed to the regime are unified, and the people will not be satisfied until it collapses altogether – is shaking the ruling elite to its core.

After more than four decades of authoritarian rule, the world is finally coming to the realization that the nuclear weapon-seeking theocracy in Iran is built on a mirage of oppression, state-sponsored terrorism, and waves of extermination, including the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners and the 2019 slaughter of 1,500 protesters – both of which were overseen by Iran's sitting president.

What is less well known about the regime in Iran is that it holds the dubious distinction of presiding over the highest number of female and juvenile executions in the world. The Islamic Republic is also the only country known to regularly execute pregnant women. In fact, the Revolutionary Guards have been known to rape female political prisoners before stoning them to death.

More than 25 years ago, Maryam Rajavi, a leading opposition figure, exposed Tehran's systemic misogyny and predicted that Iranian women would lead the next revolution. She was right. Rajavi revealed how the regime's thuggish leaders were institutionalizing and rationalizing gender apartheid in the name of religion and specifically targeting women. In her view, for gender suppression to be uprooted, women must be engaged in "political and social activism." She sparked fear amongst the mullahs by insisting that women's rights were human rights, and by observing that "the liberation of men depends on the liberation of women."

For more than three decades, Rajavi has led a campaign that has successfully implemented the full empowerment of women in all aspects of leadership of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) – an organization responsible for much of the intelligence coming out of Iran. She now serves as the president-elect of a political coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), widely understood to be the regime's parliament in exile.

Today, most in Washington agree that change is needed in Iran, but many miss the mark when it comes to thinking about how that change should come about. The false narrative of Iraqi-style regime change or fear of Iran becoming another Syria is without justification given the national unity between ethnic groups and freedom fighters on display across the country.

The widespread adoption of slogans like "death to the oppressor, be it the shah or the supreme leader" also puts to rest any potential for a pre-1979 return to rule by the Pahlavi monarchy. Iranians of all types want to move boldly into the future, not reform so mildly that they replace one set of despots with another.

Iranian women and youth from all walks of life are clear in their testimony: regime change will come from within. Iranian women are refusing compulsory veiling, religion, and rule. The price paid by generations of courageous women in the organized resistance, most often the MEK, has led to a broad-based culture of political resistance by Iranian women, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z'ers.

Today women across Iran are bravely burning and discarding their headscarves and standing face-to-face with security forces while chanting "death to the dictator," often urging the men in their communities to join them.

Iran in 2022 is reminiscent of Iran in 1978 when popular discontent facilitated the overthrow of the Pahlavi dictatorship in February 1979. This time, Washington must not lose sight of the need to embrace a non-nuclear, secular republic that upholds gender equality, female leadership, and the aspirations of all its citizens.

Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad is a cybersecurity executive and adjunct professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is a professor and executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan