In this exclusive interview, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi discusses how Iranians have no choice but to continue their struggle for democracy.
Earlier this month, the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned Iranian scientist, journalist and human rights activist, for her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all in her country. In their statement, the Nobel committee recognized the tremendous personal cost accompanying her brave struggle. Mohammadi was arrested 13 times, convicted five times, and sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.
This recognition comes a year after another wave of widespread protests engulfed the streets of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old from Iranian Kurdistan who died in police custody. This has been one of the biggest waves of protests since the Islamic Republic began over 40 years ago.
The demand for human rights and democracy in Iran has a long history. Twenty years before Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, human rights and peace advocate, teacher and writer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her pioneering efforts to promote democracy and human rights in her country. Ebadi is the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Prize.
Ebadi co-founded the Center for Defense of Human Rights, which was forced to close by Iranian authorities in 2008. As a lawyer, Ebadi has been known for accepting pro bono cases of dissident figures and for campaigning for strengthening the legal status of children and women. In 2002, she helped draft the text of a law against physical abuse of children, which was passed by the Iranian parliament. She also drafted a law explaining how a woman’s right to divorce her husband is in line with Sharia (Islamic law) and presented the bill before the government, but the male members would not consider it.
In the months since “Women, Life, Freedom” became the revolutionary cry of Iranians, Dr. Ebadi has been a leading voice in the diaspora in support of the protesters and the pro-democracy movement.
In September, she gave an exclusive interview with Waging Nonviolence about the ongoing pro-democracy movement in her home country, the role played by the U.S. and the west in this conflict, and the way forward for Iranian activists on the ground.
The West in general and the United States in particular have been watching what is happening in Iran. And the media has been generally supportive. Is this helping the women’s movement inside Iran, or is it creating more pressure on the activists on the ground, especially considering the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Iran?
It always helps the people of Iran when we talk about the bad human rights situation in Iran. For years the people of Iran have been struggling for democracy. Many have been killed or arrested, and Iranians live a very difficult life. Bringing democracy to Iran is the duty of the people of Iran, and they are fighting for it and trying. What we are asking for from governments in the West — and especially the U.S. government — is not to help the government become more powerful.
The government of Iran takes hostages either from dual nationality holders or from foreign people, and this is all for political purposes. They keep these hostages for a long period of time so that they can get all kinds of compromises from other countries in order to release them. For example, there are hostages in Iranian prisons who are either American or Iranian Americans. Biden has to do whatever he can do to bring them back because they are innocent. We understand that, but this shouldn’t result in a contract that empowers the government of Iran more. For example, in order to release the five prisoners who were taken hostage in Iran they want to release approximately $6 billion of Iranian money.
Also, there are still sanctions against Iran. Biden hasn’t removed them. At the time when the sanctions were enforced on Iran, it was able to sell up to 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Last month, statistics showed that Iran is selling 2.5 million barrels of oil, even though the sanctions are still in effect. What does that mean? This means that the U.S. closed its eyes and Iran is selling behind their back. So, if the government of Iran has more money, are they going to spend it on the people? Are people’s lives going to get better? No.
When Obama signed the JCPOA for three years there were no sanctions on Iran, nothing happened in people’s lives. Because the money that is given to the hands of Iran either goes to the pockets of corrupt people, or they buy arms and kill the people of Iran or other people in the region. They support the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al Assad’s regime in Syria, Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. So, when I say “don’t help the dictators become more powerful,” that’s what I mean. Don’t do any of these actions.
Sanctions are a heavily debated topic. Many Iranians say they punish the Iranian people, not the government. What are your views on this? Are economic sanctions an effective strategy? And what strategy should the West adopt if the sanctions are not working?
People who are close to the Iranian government have earned a lot of money due to the sanctions. And regular people have become poor. But even when the sanctions were not enforced, the economic situation in Iran was bad. There are three elements that explain the poor economic situation in Iran: the first is the corrupted government, the second is the increased spending on military — and Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts, and even in the conflict in Ukraine helping the Russians — and the third is the sanctions. So, we have to look at the situation collectively considering all these elements. It’s only democracy that can solve this problem.
The recent movement is being framed as a feminist movement. How did that framing affect the pro-democracy movement, and how did it change the mobilization of people on the ground?
Even though women are in the front, men are supporting the movement too. You need to know that if we have a free election today, I guarantee that 90 percent of the people in Iran will not vote for an Islamic republic. We even saw high schoolers joining the recent demonstrations against the government in Iran. This is not a surprise. So far 80 Iranians under the age of 18 have been killed during this movement, and more than 300 Iranians in that age group were imprisoned.
I don’t call what is happening in Iran demonstrations, it is a revolution. It’s like a trip on a train. It has already started, but the train is moving slowly. It stops sometimes, but it eventually moves again and gets to the last station.
In the first four months of the movement, you could hear all the voices, and there were many of them. But the government’s oppression was very bad. Seven young Iranians were executed for taking part in the demonstrations, the court ruled to execute 100 others, 20,000 Iranians have been imprisoned, and at least 600 Iranians have been killed. This degree of brutality lowered some voices, but it hasn’t silenced them. People are preparing themselves. And the sad thing is that while this is happening, America is helping the government of Iran.
Moving forward, how do you see the situation unfolding in Iran? Where is this current movement going? How can activists inside Iran survive or achieve some of their goals?
They have to continue. Whenever I talk to young people I tell them: imagine you are in a boat, and the sea gets rough, and the boat turns over. What are you going to do? You have to swim. If you think that you are too tired to swim, you are going to drown and die. You just need to keep swimming until you reach the land; there is no other way around it. In our country there is a religious dictatorship that interferes in all of the affairs of people’s lives. We can’t choose what to wear, we don’t have rights, and with all the wealth that exists in the country, one third of the population live under the poverty line.
Over the past 40 years, the people of Iran have been trying to resist using different tactics and strategies. We were not looking for another revolution, but it seems like the only option we have. There is no other solution. We are exactly like that person who is drowning while their boat sank. We just have to keep swimming, there is no other way.
When was the last time you visited Iran?
Do you miss Iran?
Of course. While I was outside [of the country] the government went after my husband and my sister and put them in prison, even though they had nothing to do with my work. All of the attorneys who worked with me or in my NGO were arrested. All of my property was confiscated.
They sent me a message and said if you agree to become silent, we will give you all your money back and you can come back to Iran. And I said no, I don’t need that property. I have a tongue in my mouth, and I will not keep quiet until the day I die.
How do you feel when you see the demonstrations and the places you miss? Do you want to be with the demonstrators?
This is my desire. A 15-year-old girl goes outside to demonstrate and is not afraid. I am really proud of the young people in my country. They are so courageous.