Nuclear Nationalism Has Only Brought Misery

An interview with Shirin Ebadi by Maciej Nowicki

The West should connect the problem of the Iranian nuclear program with human rights issues. You need to talk about them at the same time, in the same place—says Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim Nobel Peace Prize laureate, in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

When President Rouhani assumed power, the West expected a visible liberalization in Iran. So far these hopes have come to nothing. Why?

Rouhani is different from Ahmadinejad. He has always enjoyed a reputation of a moderate reformer. He has a nicer smile. And speaks better.

In his campaign he offered many promises. But these promises were beyond his power. The scale of repression has not diminished at all. It started with a series of public executions. A few political prisoners were released as a symbolic gesture of goodwill, but most are still serving their sentences, often in appalling conditions. Persecution of religious minorities, Christians and Baha’is, and ethnic minorities, Kurds and Baluchi, is in full swing. Iran has chosen a softer line in nuclear negotiations (because it wants the sanctions to be lifted), but it in no way translates into internal reform. Photo: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Why is it so? Because real power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, and the president can do very little. Even Rouhani’s talks with Obama required the consent of the Supreme Leader… Khatami was a president with marked democratic inclinations. He ruled for eight years. But he was unable to implement his program. Why would it be different today? Khamenei does not have a shred of tolerance and listens to nobody.

So there is no hope for changes in Iran?

There is hope. But its source is not the government. It boils down to the fact that people will pressurize the government. And at some point the regime will have no other choice.

It was like that in 2009. And very little came out of it…

I see it differently. Iranians are still resisting. Discontent is growing every day. Over 80% of the population thinks the worst about the government and about the direction Iran has been taking. It means that one day change will certainly come. I am sure of that. I only can’t say how soon it will happen.

Where does your certainty come from?

It comes from the fact that Iran has a strong civil society. The women’s movement in Iran is one of the most thriving throughout the Middle East. After the revolution many discriminatory laws against women were introduced, but Iranian women are highly educated. They form the majority (over 60%) of university students (it is in a sense a side-effect of discrimination—women invaded universities in order to escape the social restrictions imposed on them). Trade unions are also strong, although many of the leaders are in prison. We have a vigorous student movement, environmentalists, lawyers, human rights activists and very brave journalists. All this is an announcement of democratic change. Iranians have been living in the shadow of the revolution for 35 years and they also experienced a terrible, eight-years-long war with Iraq. This is more than enough for one generation. They don’t want to live like that any longer. They are weary of war and revolutionary violence. They want the changes to take place in a peaceful manner.

Let us recall the Arab spring, it was successful in Tunisia, for there had been a strong civil society there.

Negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program are to end in June 2015. Do you think it will come to an agreement?

I hope that the government will finally sign this agreement. If only because of the fact that the sanctions have driven millions of Iranians into poverty. On the other hand there are powerful

forces opposed to the agreement. There are many people associated with the regime who have made fortunes on the sanctions, some of them acquired unimaginable wealth. And this is the group promoting the ideology of “nuclear nationalism,” which is good only from the point of view of their interests. They are fiercely opposed to the agreement, for it would damage their interests. Also the American neoconservatives don’t want it.

We sometimes hear the following argument: “If Iran decides not to acquire nuclear capabilities, ultimately it will find itself at the mercy of the US. In the mid-1990s the Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal, in return receiving guarantees of inviolability of its borders, and as we know now, these guarantees were worth nothing.”

Legitimacy of a regime requires something more than anti-Americanism and nuclear weapons. The decisive factor is the way it treats its own citizens. North Korea is fiercely anti-American and possesses nuclear weapons. Does anybody believe that North Korea has a good government? Iran has been screaming for years: “Death to America!” But its citizens are increasingly worse off.

Iran is a country of double standards. Ordinary people cannot have access to social media like Facebook, for supposedly it is evil. But ministers use it. If a poor a man steals something, his hand is amputated, but officials who stole millions from the treasury are proudly strolling the streets.

But not only the hardliners are calling for the continuation of the Iranian nuclear program. Most ordinary Iranians want it too.

It was like that once, ordinary Iranians really perceived the nuclear program as a source of pride. Today they don’t care about it at all.

We usually hear a different story…

Yes, because discussing the nuclear program in the media has not been allowed for ten years. Some time ago I initiated surveys in which I asked ordinary people to express their opinion on that matter. An overwhelming majority of the respondents were in favor of terminating the nuclear program.

The government officially claims that it doesn’t want the bomb, but it is enriching uranium, for the country needs more nuclear energy. But this doesn’t make any sense. We are spending incredible amounts of money on enriching uranium—and the energy from that is satisfying just 3% of the demand. Iranian economists and engineers have said repeatedly that for the same money we could build much more efficient solar power plants. In Iran there is plenty of sunlight—but so far we haven’t spent a single dollar on solar energy.

It is not a coincidence that Germany is closing down its nuclear plants after what happened in Fukushima. And Iran is in a much worse situation. Because of strict censorship very few people in my country realize that the location of the nuclear power plant in Busher is very dangerous. And that in 2013 there was an earthquake close by. I don’t believe that Iranians want a repeat of Fukushima. Meanwhile, contrary to common sense the government plans to build another nuclear power plant.

You have always spoken against both military intervention and sanctions. Why?

I am against sanctions in their current form, for their only victims are the people of Iran. And what about intervention? It seems obvious: a military attack on Iran would only result in human rights being even less respected. We can see what happened in Iraq—fundamentalists have been hugely strengthened. Nobody is interested in human rights or freedom of speech. People only want security and nothing else.

So what can be done?

First, the West should connect the problem of the Iranian nuclear program with human rights issues. You need to talk about them at the same time, in the same place. Our government is despicable when it organizes stamping on the American flag and continues to celebrate the “Day of Death to America.” But it is difficult to resist the impression that America is interested only in its own security. Human rights are not on the agenda yet. By the way, all nondemocratic regimes in the Middle East—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates—are friends with America. If Washington stopped supporting these regimes, we would very soon see their end. The West must pay more attention to the principles it supposedly wants to defend.

Second, I am in favor of sanctions, but more precisely targeted. The abolition of death penalty in Iran is unrealistic. I say that, although I am against death penalty. What the West should demand is abolition of public executions. It would at least be a good start.

Iran should be banned from access to international satellite platforms as soon as possible. For the programs broadcast by Iran are promoting hatred. The list of ministers who violate human rights should be extended and these people should be denied entry to EU countries. Europe can be very rigorous when it deals with ordinary Iranians—relatives of people living in EU countries are often denied visas. But Europe spreads a red carpet before representatives of the regime.

Finally, bank accounts of the people in power in Iran should be frozen as soon as possible. It is unacceptable that they are able to make use of the dirty money made on sanctions. Dictators and their people always have the same hope—that when they retire or when the people overthrow them, they will emigrate and live a wonderful life for the money they have stolen. They have to be deprived of this opportunity. Making their world smaller is the most effective punishment.

The Iranian regime has been repeatedly accused of violating human rights. When answering the critics, it often invokes cultural differences.

But Iran has signed the relevant international conventions. And since it’s signed them, it must respect them. This is a universal code of conduct and has nothing to do with the West or the East, with Islam or Christianity. If Muslims want to create a declaration of human rights compatible with Islam, then a logical conclusion would be to write separate declarations for each religion, Christian, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. And dozens of others. That would mean that the concept of human rights would cease to exist.

People who think that Islam and human rights or Islam and democracy are incompatible with each other, usually belong to one of two categories: representatives of the West who want war or some Islamic governments who violate the rights of the people and seek justification for that.

Just like all other religions, Islam allows various interpretations. In most countries stoning and cutting hands off have been abolished. But in Iran and Saudi Arabia these punishments are still in force. The Islamic veil is not mandatory everywhere. In Saudi Arabia a woman can’t drive a car, not to mention active presence in public life. But in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia there have been female prime ministers or presidents. Let us compare it with Christianity. Among its denominations some condemn abortion, but some accept it. There are Christians who oppose same-sex marriages and those who would allow them…

You are the only Nobel Prize laureate in the history of Iran. How has it changed your life?

The government had never accepted what I had been doing, and after the Nobel Prize my life became even more difficult. In 2008 an NGO founded by me was liquidated. In 2009 everything I had—including a house inherited from my parents—was confiscated and auctioned off. I was abroad at the time, so my husband and sister were arrested. My husband was tortured. He was ordered to repeat the false accusations against me and it was filmed. He said there, among other things, that I was a Western agent and that I was awarded the Nobel Prize in order to overthrow the government. This recording was shown on television. Such was the price I paid for my activities.

Since then I haven’t been to Iran. I am not afraid of prison, I had been arrested before. But I have come to the conclusion that in this way I would be more useful to my country, because only from abroad I can speak the truth about Iran. So 10 months a year I travel all over the word speaking about what is happening in my country. Theoretically I live in London, but in fact I spend more time at airports.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

Download PDF