The Obama administration is making a major misstep by “closing its eyes” to the violent government crackdown on protesters in Bahrain and leaving the door open for Iran to influence the small oil-producing nation and U.S. ally, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said Friday.
“In the absence of the West in Bahrain, the government of Iran can of course influence and exploit the revolution,” Ebadi, the Iranian-born human rights activist, author and former judge who has been living in exile since 2009, said in an interview at The Washington Post.
Ebadi highlighted Sunni-led Bahrain, which is a majority-Shiite nation like Iran that has used violence to stop recent protests. She questioned why the Obama administration has put more public pressure on other restive governments in the region.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month commented on events in the Persian Gulf monarchy of 1.2 million people, which has been the longtime home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
The Bahraini government defended its crackdown by alleging Iranian involvement in the protests.
Obama telephoned Bahraini officials to urge “restraint” and Clinton called the crackdown “alarming,” but human rights groups have said those responses were in sharp contrast with U.S. demands for new governments in countries such as Egypt and Libya.
Ebadi fears giving Iran’s current leadership more leverage in the region.
A proponent of democracy and an advocate for the rights of women and children, Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize but ultimately left Iran, which she said has become too dangerous for critics of the government and reformers. Her human rights group in Iran was shut down, and she said Friday that her colleagues and relatives continue to be targeted by the government as a way to intimidate her work.
The 64-year-old lawyer, who spoke through a translator, has been traveling the country discussing her book and the social unrest in the Arab world.
Ebadi said she had predicted the current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that some call an “Arab spring” and had labeled the decade starting in 2010 “the decade of awakening of Islamic countries.”
“It could have been predicted because of the non-democratic behavior of the governments,” she said.
Ebadi, who initially supported the 1978 revolution in her country, has a message for today’s reformers: Be wary of rigid ideologies.
She is touring to promote her new book, which lays out the various bleak ways the Iranian Revolution played out in one family with whom she was close. Three brothers in the book intensely embrace different ideological paths, all with negative ends, including for the fractured family.
Looking at the social and political change churning in Iran and across much of the Arab world, Ebadi said her experience taught her “not to become prejudiced” about her beliefs. The book is entitled “The Golden Cage” because of what she calls the potentially destructive aspects of revolution.
“When one builds a cage, one sees it as golden, for if it were not good, they would have left it,” she said.
While the reformers in Iran known as the Green Movement have been less visible than a few years ago, Ebadi said “opposition to the government [in Iran] is becoming stronger and stronger every day.”
Rising government brutality has pushed people behind the scenes, she said. “It’s the form of the opposition that has changed.”
She praised U.S. policy toward Iran in the past couple of years, when she says the United States “has supported the people and focused on human rights issues.”
Asked what role religion will play in post-uprising governments, Ebadi said the revolutions were triggered by “the poverty of the people, the gap between rich and poor and violations of human rights.” She predicted secular parties holding sway in Tunisia, but said that in Egypt “the fundamentalists are stronger.”
She travels often for work but stays with her daughter in Georgia when she is not, she said.