Interview: Shirin Ebadi

Mother Jones speaks with the Nobel peace prize winner about human rights in Iran


Shirin Ebadi is a former Iranian judge who was forced to resign after the conservative clerics took power in 1979. She became a major human rights campaigner, and was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003. Journalist Reese Erlich interviewed Ebadi at her office in Tehran in November 2006.

Note: The interpreter who translated Ebadi’s answers often refers to Ebadi in the third person.

Mother Jones: How has the situation, the human rights situation, changed here in the last year? I was here in 2005 during the elections.

Shirin Ebadi: Unfortunately the situation of human rights in Iran isn’t improving. Some incidents happened in 2006. She wants to explain. There were several cases of execution and in two cases, police attacked peaceful demonstrations of women and beat women.

MJ: This was the International Women’s Day…?

SE: Yes. Some of the newspapers were shut down and the government didn’t try to reopen the newspapers that were shut down before. And the laws are as bad as before. In 2006, some women were sentenced to be executed by stoning.

MJ: But that’s a continuation of that barbaric practice, the stoning. Am I right? That is, it is not something that’s new with [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

SE: The stoning is not something new. It was it started after the revolution.

MJ: So, I know when I was here at the time of the elections, people were expecting a very serious, right-wing, conservative trend as a result of Ahmadinejad’s election. How would you evaluate the situation? Do you think it’s as bad as people would have thought it would be? Has he had to back off on some policies?

SE: We shouldn’t just consider the desire of government to do what it wants to do. We should always consider the resistance of people. The culture of Iranian people doesn’t let the government drag people into deep trouble or backlash. Maybe government wants it but the culture doesn’t let it go on.

MJ: Have there been other demonstrations besides the International Women’s Day, either from the women’s movement or students or others?

SE: Yes, in June there was a demonstration by women because women were protesting against discrimination against them. And unfortunately, police forces attacked women and they beat women and one woman ended up having a broken arm. About 70 people were arrested. Some of them were in the jail up to one month, and a man Mr. Moussaoui Hossueni stayed in the jail for four months. [Editor’s note: In early March 2007, the government arrested 33 prominent women’s rights activists for protesting the trial of women arrested in the 2006 demonstration.]

MJ: Roughly how many people came to the demonstration?

SE: No demonstrations actually happened because when they started to gather, police attacked. She complained to the head of the police forces and she acted as a representative for beaten women.

MJ: Did they use women police to attack the women?

SE: Yes.

MJ: Are they any more or less violent than the men police?

SE: She believes that violence is violence. When someone slaps you, you doesn’t measure the pain. The thing is that no one should slap you.

MJ: There was a bus driver strike. I realize it was around economic issues, not political issues. How significant do you think that was?

SE: It was very significant, in her opinion, but she says that she should mention that workers always have demonstrations. And if you read the newspapers every day, you see that every day workers are protesting in different parts of the country, and they are legitimate, or they have the right to do it. Inflation is too high in Iran, and the salaries doesn’t help people at all. Because unemployment is a big issue in Iran, if a worker loses his job, he can’t find another job easily.

MJ: Have the demonstrations you mentioned all been around exclusively economic issues, or have any of them gone into the political realm as well?

SE: The protests are more about economy. But you should pay attention to the subject that the economic problems of people in this country is rooted within the political problem. Because Iran is a rich country, and if the people of this country are poor, it’s because of the wrong policies of the government.

MJ: So, for example, if the workers demand the right to have an independent union, that’s a political demand as well as an economic one?

SE: Yes. The bus company employees wanted to have their own union but the government resisted and arrested some of them and put them in prison. The government wants to play as the representative of people in every aspect of life.

MJ: Are there any of the bus driver union activists who are willing to talk to the press?

SE: She does know some of them, but she believes that they might not be willing to talk to the press after all the things that they had to go through.

MJ: Yeah. It’s too dangerous?

SE: Many of them are jobless now…they don’t have any jobs. And they have open cases in the court. And she believes that being unemployed is more dangerous for an ordinary worker in Iran than having an open case in the court.

MJ: Your job is a dangerous one. Have you personally, in your organization, faced more difficulties in the last year?

SE: About five months ago the ministry of interior affairs gave her center, the human rights center, a warning that this center that this center is an illegal organization, and they have to shut down. And her answer to the ministry of interior affairs is that they gave all the necessary legal documents to the ministry five years ago. But the ministry doesn’t register their company. It’s like want to take your driving license. You pass all the exams, but the office doesn’t give you your driving license. So they said they will continue working in their center, and if the ministry has any objections, they can just send some police forces to come and arrest them. But the international support is so intensive that no one could stop them from doing what they are doing. But he doesn’t know what will happen tomorrow.

MJ: So the ministry of the interior has not contacted you again since five months ago?

SE: After the ministry saw all this support from the international community, they contacted her and told her that there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, and they’re working on it. But she’s certain that they will never register her center.

MJ: Right. Now, do you face problems? Are people followed or harassed? Are the phones tapped or the mail checked?

SE: Her email and her phone has been tapped for a long time now. But she has no complaints, because she says that “I don’t have any secrets, and I’m happy that the government listens to what I have to say.”

MJ: How do you know that they are tapping or listening or watching your email?

SE: She knows. [Laughter]

MJ: I interviewed Akbar Ganji when he was in California and a lot of people were surprised when he got released. He said it was because of the international pressure. Why do you think the government finally decided to release him?

SE: Mr. Ganji was in prison for six years, and that was it…for six years, and it was finished. Of course the government could make up some stories and accuse him of some other things, but the international support didn’t let the government do that.

MJ: He has a political program, advocacy for change, in Iran. What’s your opinion?

SE: As far as she knows, Mr. Ganji is a human rights activist in Iran and he works on freedom of expression and he does his job very well.

MJ: But he also has a program that he’s advocated for— for example, to have a federalist system in Iran to eliminate the…you know-

SE: She doesn’t like judging her colleagues’ works.

MJ: OK. The U.S. recently elected Democrats to the House and the Senate. Do you think that will make any difference for relations between the U.S. and Iran?

SE: The history and our experience shows that Democrats and Republicans think the same way in some cases, and their ideas aren’t very different when it comes to international relations.

MJ: So you’re not expecting much in the way of changes?

SE: She’s not expecting any tangible changes in the relationship between Iran and America.

MJ: There’s a commission that was formed to study the Iraq war, James Baker headed it up, and one of the proposals is likely to be that the U.S. talk with Syria and with Iran about the issue of U.S. troops in Iraq. Do you think that makes it…do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think that’ll go anywhere if the U.S. does try to do that?

SE: It is a good idea, but she’s not sure whether it is practical or not. If you study the behavior or the attitude of Syria, Iran, and U.S., you understand that these three countries can’t come to terms with each other.

MJ: It’ll be difficult to reach an agreement, is what you’re saying?

SE: Yes.

MJ: OK. The U.S. raises the whole issue of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and so on, as a way to attack the government in Iran. First, do you think Iran should develop nuclear power?

SE: She says that I’m not an expert on energy, so I can’t say if we need it or not. Because in some cases and in some countries, this energy is not necessary. The government of Iran claims that it does not want to make nuclear bomb. But the international community doesn’t believe Iran. Now, what’s the solution? Iran is not a democratic country, and all the decisions are made behind closed doors. The international community can’t trust such a government. If the government of Iran wants the international community to believe in what it says, it should try to bring true, pure democracy into the country. The political solution to the energy issue or the nuclear case is democracy in Iran.

MJ: Do you believe the government when they say they’re not developing nuclear weapons?

SE: She’s saying that she’s never been a member of the government, and she doesn’t know what’s happening behind the closed doors.

MJ: If you were president of the United States, what policies would you pursue towards Iran today?

SE: Before answering your question, she wants to mention that political relations don’t get better or worse overnight. When the American government orchestrated a coup against [1950s Iranian prime minister Mohammed] Mosaddeq with the help of the CIA, it should have thought about the condition of Iran after 30 years. And after that coup the moderate nationalist groups in Iran couldn’t do what they wanted to do and radicalists started working in the country.

MJ: OK. So my original question would be, what policy should the U.S. have towards Iran today?

SE: It’s a very difficult question to answer because now America is not the only one who should decide about the policies toward Iran. And Iran should decide about the policies towards America as well. I know what Americans shouldn’t do. Americans shouldn’t start a military attack, and they shouldn’t bombard Iran, and they shouldn’t interfere with the internal affairs of the country. And the Americans should pay more attention to the human right issues in Iran.

MJ: Do you think the U.S. should stop the sanctions that it currently has. Do you think the U.S. should recognize, reestablish diplomatic relations?

SE: The diplomatic relations start when the two sides get a bit closer to each other, but now they are drifting apart.

MJ: How about the economic sanctions that the U.S. currently has?

SE: She believes that economic sanctions hurt people more than the government. She does not agree to economic sanctions because people will get hurt. But other kinds of sanctions, like political sanctions that wouldn’t hurt people, is OK.

MJ: President Ahmadinejad has made numerous statements about Israel, [and he has been] attacked for making those. Is what he’s saying today any different from what Ayatollah Khomeini or other leaders have said in the past about Israel?

SE: Maybe the words are the same, but the time is not the same. At that time, Iranians weren’t working on achieving nuclear energy.

MJ: So do you disagree with the statements that he’s made?

SE: Israel is a country and should exist. And a country by the name of Palestine should be made. Two different governments of Palestine and Israel can live beside each other happily and both of them should recognize each other.

MJ: Israel tries to argue that if it should bomb Iran before it gets the bomb because Iran could attack Israel. What I believe, and what a lot of observers believe, is that Iran would never strike first against Israel because it would be insanity. What’s your view?

SE: Iran, the Iranian government, has mentioned several times that it wouldn’t attack Israel.

MJ: It would be militarily and politically crazy, wouldn’t it?

SE: Any war is crazy.

MJ: Fair enough.