Shirin Ebadi Prepares for the End
Why the Nobel laureate thinks the Iranian regime's days are numbered.
To listen to Shirin Ebadi's story is to grasp how dramatically Iran has changed in recent months. The Nobel laureate has not been back to Iran since the country's disputed June election. In November, authorities confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize medal from a bank safe-deposit box. After Christmas they arrested her sister in Tehran. Her husband, who is still there, had his passport taken away. Authorities then returned it, only for him to discover that the returned passport was a forgery. I recently had the chance to speak with Ebadi in depth about developments in her country. Now, Iran's most famous dissident tells me she has no doubt that she would be arrested if she returned home.
To listen to Shirin Ebadi’s story is to grasp how dramatically Iran has changed in recent months. The Nobel laureate has not been back to Iran since the country’s disputed June election. In November, authorities confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize medal from a bank safe-deposit box. After Christmas they arrested her sister in Tehran. Her husband, who is still there, had his passport taken away. Authorities then returned it, only for him to discover that the returned passport was a forgery. I recently had the chance to speak with Ebadi in depth about developments in her country. Now, Iran’s most famous dissident tells me she has no doubt that she would be arrested if she returned home.
Last summer the thousands of protesters who poured into Teheran’s streets were chanting, "Give us our vote back." But it’s no longer just about a fraudulent election. Today crowds in various locations across the country shout "Death to the supreme leader," and reform clerics who had previously insisted that the system remain untouchable now call for free elections, free media, and freedom of speech and assembly.
Ebadi seems to be traveling a similar route. The 62-year-old human rights lawyer had denounced the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion efforts. She sought reform of the system, not its demise, she would say. She deplored the "axis of evil" rhetoric and consistently attacked the Bush State Department’s initiative to funnel $75 million to oppositionists and civil society groups. She hasn’t changed her mind on this point. Ebadi told me she continues to believe that outside aid for the democracy movement is a mistake. But it’s hard not to notice, as the situation in Iran has changed, that Ebadi’s views are evolving.
In our conversation, she emphasized repeatedly, "You cannot do business with the regime." She is convinced that Iran’s leadership is not negotiating in good faith on the nuclear issue and would not abide by any agreement reached with the United States and the European Union.
Ebadi once outspokenly supported U.S.-Iranian talks without preconditions. She still supports dialogue. But she wants that dialogue to involve human rights and a strategy to support civil society and the rule of law. She thinks that only an Iranian government that respects human rights and rules by consent can be a proper, credible partner for the West to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.
How to get there? If the United States pursues sanctions, Ebadi says, Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian station), along with the Voice of America and the BBC, must help convince ordinary Iranians that sanctions are aimed at the regime, not the people. Like many Iranians, Ebadi is concerned about the passions nationalism can arouse. She’s worried that past mistakes of U.S. foreign policy — she has her axes to grind — and a local penchant for conspiracy theories can make for a potent, toxic brew. She insists at the same time, though, that Iranians will endure considerable hardship if they think the endgame is greater respect for human rights.
Ebadi is hopeful about U.S. policy, primarily because she’s a great admirer of President Barack Obama. She has defended his Nobel Peace Prize in interviews and told me she thinks he deserves the award for his sincerity and commitment to humane, liberal values. She applauds the president’s efforts at health-care reform in the United States. Her effusive praise for Obama, however, sits side by side with her awkward acknowledgment that democracy and human rights are not yet an administration priority.
I asked Ebadi whether she would consider a future in politics. She insisted she has always excluded the possibility. I reminded her that Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel had done the same thing — until he became president of a free Czechoslovakia in 1989. Ebadi still steadfastly rejects such notions for herself, but knows that the question of leadership is a sore spot for the Iranian opposition. No single figure has yet emerged who can galvanize the entire country and unite the disparate groupings that make up the opposition. In truth, a female secularist is unlikely to provide such leadership. That the regime fears Ebadi’s influence, however, is abundantly clear.
Her sister, Noushin Ebadi, was taken from her apartment the evening of Dec. 28 by four security officers. Since then she has been allowed just a one-minute phone call to her husband. Noushin, a medical lecturer at Azad University in Tehran, has never been involved in political or human rights work. In that brief call to her husband, Noushin made clear that the authorities want Ebadi to cease her activity. "My sister is not a political prisoner," Ebadi tells me. "She’s a hostage."
In six months, the opposition has become wider and deeper. Ebadi says it’s nonsense to think this was ever merely about a small group of educated elites in northern Tehran. The democracy movement in other cities is active and growing, she says. By all accounts, fissures are beginning to emerge in the ruling class. There are signs that the secular and religious opposition have begun to cooperate. If this continues, it would be a dramatic development.
It’s still possible that the government will reach a compromise with the protest movement and succeed in co-opting key members of the opposition. But with each week bringing new violence and fresh reports of arrests, beatings, and rapes, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely. In one sign of the regime’s growing desperation, Iranian state television recently aired a documentary about the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot to death during protests in Tehran last summer. YouTube images of her death shocked millions around the world. The documentary suggested that Agha-Soltan cooperated with foreign agents and might have staged her own death. This is certain to cause fresh outrage.
Show trials, documentaries vilifying young Agha-Soltan: One ominous sign after another leads Ebadi to concede that the country is headed for a deep freeze and might come to resemble a military dictatorship like Burma. But that’s short-term. "This regime is finished," she says passionately — unless it changes course soon, and dramatically.
If the men who rule Iran are indeed at the end of their bloody reign, the United States and its allies have a lot to think about. Listening to Shirin Ebadi would mark a good start.
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.