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Nobel Laureate Sees Iran’s Hard-line Movement Growing

May 5, 2006 at 6:40 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The glittering Nobel Award Ceremony in Oslo’s palatial City Hall is a long way from a gritty Iranian prison.

In 2003, Shirin Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for her fight for women’s rights and human rights under Iran’s repressive clerical regime.

Just three years earlier, in the summer of 2000, the Iranian dissident and democracy activist had found herself behind bars in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. She was imprisoned for nearly a month for videotaping evidence to prove that Iran’s hard-line mullahs were behind a string of violent attacks on Iranian reformists.

Trained as a lawyer in the days of the Shah, in 1969 she became Iran’s first woman judge, but she was removed from the bench after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The clerics said Islam forbids women to serve as judges.

She turned, instead, to writing and using the legal system to defend individuals, particularly dissidents and women, against the state and the clerics that ran it. Her activities earned her the enmity of the regime.

Now she has written an account of her life of activism. Her book, “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope,” is being published here, but not in Iran. I spoke to Ebadi recently in Washington.

Iran under Ahmadinejad

MARGARET WARNER: Shirin Ebadi, welcome.

SHIRIN EBADI, Winner of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You have spent a lifetime fighting for human rights and democracy in Iran. Is that agenda moving forward or backward under the new President Ahmadinejad?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Democracy in Iraq is not moving forward, because censorship is being applied in Iran more seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: And are other intellectuals and activists being jailed as you were?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Yes. A number of the political activists and human rights defenders are in prison.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it worse than it was before Ahmadinejad came to power?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Yes, as I explained earlier, the situation has gotten worse in Iran. For example, Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani, who is a human rights defender and attorney, spent seven months in prison.

MARGARET WARNER: Your book has incredible examples of the harassment you were subjected to, not only being in prison, the fact that you discovered that you'd been targeted for assassination. How difficult is it for you to continue to do your work inside Iran today?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): It is in these bad situations that people like me have to work. If Iran was a total democracy or an advanced democracy, people like me did not have to be active.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel in danger?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Human rights activists, regardless of where they are in our world, will feel danger.

U.S. goals for democracy in Iran

MARGARET WARNER: The Bush administration has launched a $75 million program to try to assist democracy advocates in Iran and promote democracy in Iran. Is a program like that useful to you and your colleagues who are engaged in this fight from the inside?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): No, I don't think that it benefits me or people like me, because whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do feel about President Bush's wider call for more democracy in the Muslim world throughout?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Can democracy be brought to a people by bombs? Democracy is a culture; it has to come from within a society, not to be brought by America to a society.

MARGARET WARNER: What gives you confidence that you can succeed fighting from within, on your own, without help from the outside?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): I do count on the help of the people of the world, but not on the help of the governments.

On the other hand, America's approach on democracy is not a correct approach. As I told you, you cannot bring a democracy through bombing people. The countries in the region that are allies of the United States do not enjoy an advanced democracy, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

Iran's nuclear program

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've also been critical of the international pressure that's being applied right now on the Iranian government to prevent it from acquiring the technology that could be used for nuclear weapons. Why?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): What I have said has not been interpreted correctly. I'm going to tell you what I mean right now.

The government of Iran claims that it had peaceful purposes for nuclear energy, but the world does not buy that claim. The solution to this problem is bringing an advanced democracy in Iran.

In a democracy, people have a say in the government and they will not permit the government to abuse its power. For example, France has a nuclear bomb, but the world is not scared of France, because France is a democracy and people supervise what their government is doing.

And if the government of Iran wants the world to buy its claim and accept it for it, it has to move towards an advanced democracy in Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: But what should the world do now if Iran does not -- it is not a full democracy now, and if it does not move quite immediately to that?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Instead of putting pressure on Iran to terminate its nuclear program, the pressure must be put on the government of Iran to bring democracy to Iran.

This is what I say, too. America and the world has forgotten about the human rights situation in Iran. Now that they feel that they are in danger, they're bringing up the issue of human rights in Iran, and we should not accept that there is only one police for the whole world and that police can decide on everything.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you believe the regime when it says it only wants the nuclear technology for peaceful energy purposes?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): I'm not a member of the government, and the decisions are made behind closed doors in the Iranian government, so I cannot tell you what goes on in there.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think a majority of Iranians believes that Iran should have a nuclear weapon?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): No, they don't think so.

A possible military strike

MARGARET WARNER: There have been reports here in Washington, denied by the president, that the administration is at least making contingency plans for the possibility of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. What impact would that have, if it came to that?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): An attack on Iran can have bad implications on the whole region and can cause riots in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: How would the Iranian people react to any kind of military action?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): The people of Iran criticize their government, political criticism. However, notwithstanding the criticism, the people of Iran will defend their country and will not let the aliens prevail.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, at home, your struggle continues?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): That's correct. I fight for democracy and for peace.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think will you see full democracy in Iran in your lifetime?

SHIRIN EBADI (through translator): Yes, I think so, and I hope so.

MARGARET WARNER: Shirin Ebadi, thank you.

SHIRIN EBADI: You're welcome.