By RICK GLADSTONE
Published: April 13, 2012
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has no affinity for the authorities in Iran, who she fears would have her arrested or worse if she returned home. But she has found herself standing with them in opposition to the onerous nuclear sanctions imposed on her country.
As representatives of Iran and six world powers prepared to resume negotiations on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities this weekend in Istanbul, Ms. Ebadi said that the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union were misdirected.
Although meant to pressure the Iranian government to compromise on its nuclear program, “the very stringent sanctions have really been a tremendous blow to people,” Ms. Ebadi said in a telephone interview. “The people need these sanctions to be removed for a sustainable life.”
The sanctions have contributed to acute shortages of foreign goods there, rising inflation and unemployment and a sharply devalued currency. Further deprivations loom, especially if a European Union ban on Iranian oil sales goes ahead as planned in less than three months.
In response to the sanctions, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been defiant, asserting that Iran will never stop enriching uranium in response to foreign demands. At the same time, he insists that Iran will never use its uranium stockpile to develop nuclear weapons, despite Western suspicions to the contrary. As for the economic pain in Iran caused by the sanctions, the ayatollah has said Iranians should take it as an opportunity to become more self-reliant and wean themselves off foreign goods.
Ms. Ebadi, 64, who was attending a conference in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday, asserted that the Iranian government was not correct in saying that its nuclear energy program was popular among Iranians. While Iranians across the political spectrum say Iran has the legal right to develop nuclear energy, Ms. Ebadi said, many people are privately worried about the environmental risks of nuclear reactors, particularly in Iran’s earthquake zones. She said there was no public discussion about this issue because the government had banned newspapers from reporting anything but the official position in recent years.
As for the nuclear negotiations, which were resumed after more than a year, Ms. Ebadi was not optimistic. “I hope the talks in Istanbul are fruitful, but the previous experiences proved that Iran was just buying time,” she said.
Ms. Ebadi’s opposition to the sanctions has not diminished the mutual antagonism between her and the Iranian government, which considers her one of the more annoying critical voices it cannot silence. She left Iran before the disputed 2009 election and ensuing crackdown on antigovernment protests, and has often spoken out about the repression of dissidents, women, religious minorities and others deemed a threat to the conservative Islamic establishment.
She became the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2003, for her work in advancing the rights of women in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A judge by training before Islamic clerics took control, she was stripped of that title because they deemed women unfit to be judges, and she was made a secretary in her own court. She quit.
Ms. Ebadi then developed her own law practice, representing dissidents and victims of child abuse, and later founded the Human Rights Defenders Center in Iran. Six years after she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the government confiscated her medal and bank accounts, accusing her of evading taxes on the award money and forcing her into exile. The medal was later returned.
She now spends most of her time traveling, attending conferences and lectures and discussing her books about Iran, “The Golden Cage” and “Iran Awakening.” She said she had often received death threats that she attributes to Iranian government harassment.
“They only are doing this to scare me,” she said. “They’ve always said they would come after me and kill me.”