WASHINGTON -- Iran’s leading human rights activist and its only Nobel Peace Prize winner softened her stance against economic sanctions aimed at the Islamist state -- even as she abandoned her defense of its nuclear program.
Shirin Ebadi, a prominent Iranian lawyer now exiled in Atlanta, had been an outspoken critic of the international sanctions. She said they had hurt the Iranian people and were a poor substitute for pressure on the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to restore democracy and freedom.
But at an event Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the first Muslim woman Nobel Laureate appeared to give the green light to economic sanctions. She described them as something more benign: international trade law.
”Countries have the right to come up with laws regarding trade in their own country,” Ebadi said through a translator. She compared U.S. limits on trade with Iran to French laws regulating the importation of cheese.
“What has America done? America has limited the work of corporations within its borders,” she said, noting that companies have a choice on whether to operate in the United States or Iran. “Legally, this is not a sanction. This is regulating trade in America. We may not like it, but it’s not sanctions.”
Ebadi declined to give President Obama advice on dealing with Iran. But she signaled approval for Obama by way of a veiled comparison to President George W. Bush, who once authorized military action against Tehran.
“The only thing that I can say is, don’t threaten Iran,” she said. “Iranians don’t like being threatened and fortunately [Obama] has not committed that mistake.”
The activist, known for her work to protect women, children and religious minorities in Iran, also indicated that she's shifted her views on Iran’s nuclear program, which are the reason for the international sanctions.
Ebadi had previously toed the official line on the Iranian nuclear program -- that it is the country's inalienable, sovereign right. "Aside from being economically justified,” she once said, “it has become a cause of national pride for an old nation with a glorious history. No Iranian government, regardless of its ideology or democratic credentials, would dare to stop” it.
But now she dismisses that sentiment as agitprop.
“The claim that nuclear energy is the national pride of Iran is not true at all, and I don’t accept it. It’s the propaganda of the Ahmadinejad government,” she said. “The people of Iran have so many problems in their daily life they can’t even pay their gas bill. They don’t have time to think about stuff like that.”
Ebadi added that pursuing nuclear power -- even for peaceful ends -- no longer makes economic sense. And, as the disaster in Japan showed, it poses a threat to human safety because Iran’s nuclear facilities also lie on fault lines susceptible to earthquakes.
“The people of Iran don’t want another Fukushima,” she said, referring to the ruined Japanese power plant.
Ebadi spoke during a tour to promote her new book, “The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny.”
Unable to return to Iran, where her life has been repeatedly threatened, Ebadi opened her novel-like story with the words of an influential Iranian intellectual: “If you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.”
The book is a history of the three decades after the Iranian Revolution as seen through the eyes of a real family Ebadi knew. The family members' names have been changed but their experiences are true, Ebadi said. Their lives are intended to be a microcosm of the trauma suffered by Iranians since the Ayatollah Khomeini and his fundamentalist Islamic supporters ousted the secular monarchy of the Shah.
The story follows three brothers -- a monarchist, a communist and an Islamist -- and shows how their rigid individual ideologies brings each to a sorry end. They are, as Carnegie analyst Karim Sadjadpour put it, “naive Utopians.”
Their sister, Ebadi’s close friend, is the book’s wisest and most logical character. She embodies the out-sized role Iranian women have played in the country’s cultural and intellectual life.
“Women have been pioneers of protest,” said Ebadi, noting the prominent place they had in the demonstrations that followed the disputed 2009 election in Iran.
Though the protests were violently snuffed out by the regime, Ebadi suggested that they may have been a harbinger of this spring’s Arab uprisings in North Africa and the Gulf and perhaps of a renewed movement for independence and freedom in her homeland.
“Iran is like fire under the ashes," which could flare up at any time, she said.