Advice From an Iranian Nobel Laureate About Her Country

Thursday, October 15, 2009

SHIRIN EBADI, a 62-year-old Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize six years ago, is generally cautious and measured in her speech. She is a human rights lawyer who says that she does not involve herself in politics. She says that it's not her job to favor one party over another, as long as the government respects people's right to express themselves.

So it was startling this week to hear Ms. Ebadi say bluntly that the Obama administration has gotten some things backward when it comes to Iran. It's not that engaging with the government is a mistake, she said during a visit to The Post. But paying so much more attention to Iran's nuclear ambitions than to its trampling of democracy and freedom is a mistake both tactical and moral.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "is at the lowest level of popularity one can imagine," Ms. Ebadi said. "If the West focuses exclusively on the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad can tell his people that the West is against Iran's national interest and rally people to his cause. But if the West presses also on its human rights record, he will find himself in a position where his popular base is getting weaker and weaker by the day."

Administration officials point out that they have not focused exclusively on the nuclear issue. President Obama has spoken out in support of democracy forces, and Undersecretary of State William J. Burns put human rights on the agenda during his meeting with an Iranian official in Geneva this month. Ms. Ebadi acknowledged that Mr. Obama has said "that the voice of the people needs to be heard. But he needs to repeat the statement again and again, so that people in Iran hear him."

Ms. Ebadi suggested that the nature of Iran's regime is more crucial to U.S. security than any specific deals on nuclear energy. Iran's people are not as wedded to the nuclear program as the regime wants outsiders to believe. A democratic government would be unlikely to build a nuclear bomb, she said, and even if it did, the weapon would not be a threat in the hands of a government that would not view America or Israel as enemies. By contrast, she argued, even a seemingly ironclad nuclear agreement with Mr. Ahmadinejad might be of little value: "Imagine if the government actually promised to stop its nuclear program tomorrow. Would you trust this government not to start another secret nuclear program somewhere else?"

The courage it takes to say such things may be difficult for Americans to comprehend. Ms. Ebadi's husband, 67, and her brother and sister are called in for questioning every week, she said, and pressured to pressure her. Many of her clients are in prison, some now facing the death penalty. She herself intends to return to her homeland. But the events of the summer -- the prematurely announced election results, the shootings of peaceful protesters in the street and on university campuses, the rapes of imprisoned protesters, the ghoulish show trials of alleged traitors to the regime -- seem to have convinced her that she must speak out.

"Mr. Obama has extended the hand of friendship to a man who has blood on his hands," she said. "He can at least avoid shaking the hand of friendship with him."

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