A Laureate in Exile


She opposed, and has opposed, the Afghan War, too, correct?

“Yes . . . There are better ways of eradicating terrorism. I am deeply sorry about 9/11. But personally, I believe that, instead of invading Afghanistan . . . I think if the U.S. had built 4,000 schools in Afghanistan, in memory of the 4,000 or so people who were killed on 9/11 [she means 3,000, of course], it would have been a better way of fighting terrorism.”

She further said that the schools could have been named for the victims of 9/11. “Let’s imagine that one of the victims was called George. If America built a school called George, in the name of that victim, [an] Afghan child would grow up knowing how George was killed on 9/11, and that would be a better lesson to that Afghan child.”

Shirin Ebadi believes that every people should determine its own fate. Fine. But how can people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship — as Iraqis did — determine their own fate? Aren’t they powerless to do so?

“Once people have information and awareness, they will be able to make decisions. For example, why do you think the people of the Arab awakening rose up, which they did not do 15 years ago? It was thanks to the Internet. It raised awareness. So, thanks to the Internet, they managed to build networks and interact with one another.

“Which is exactly why I said earlier that, if you want to help our people, you have to help them have access to the free flow of information, to a free Internet, not controlled by the dictatorship. That is the way to help democracy, not a military invasion.”

Ebadi opposes the Iraq and Afghan wars, mightily. But, as a human-rights personality and Nobel peace laureate, can she at least be happy that people no longer have to suffer the monstrous cruelties of rule by Saddam Hussein or the Taliban?

“Yes, of course. It was a positive phenomenon that they managed to topple Saddam Hussein and fight the Taliban. But at what price? There were less costly and better ways of achieving the same results, while avoiding the killing of all those innocent people.”

Do you support the right of Israel to exist, as a Jewish state?

“I believe there should be two states, Israel and Palestine.”

Care to say anything more about President Bush? What about President Obama?

“As regards the former president, Bush, I think that what I’ve told you so far about what he did in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffice. Regarding President Obama, I would like to say that I’m in favor of his policy for the Middle East. I think it was very important that he gave his support to the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and called on their dictators to leave. It’s very important that he supported the people of Libya. I think that the United States must no longer defend dictators.”

(Evidently, Ebadi does not oppose military action in Libya, despite her stated rule against foreign intervention.)

I had read that she was in favor of the Iranian nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

“No,” she told me, sharply. “I never supported the nuclear program, and I’ve always believed that they must halt uranium enrichment. Iran must listen to the United Nations Security Council.”

Ebadi believes that nuclear energy “is not good for the environment.” Iran is vulnerable to earthquakes. So “there is a great possibility” of the kind of tragedy that has occurred in Japan. And what are Iranians “going to do with the atomic waste?”

Moreover, says Ebadi, “we have great reserves of gas. We have the second-biggest gas reserves in the world. We have a lot of sunshine, so we can have solar panels. So, it is not in the national interest for us to continue with the enrichment of uranium.

“Not to mention the restrictions that have been created, because of the uranium enrichment, for our country. Iran has become isolated.”

On the impact of her Nobel peace prize on the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran:

“It has had an extremely positive effect. Up to that time [the awarding of her prize in 2003], only the NGO that I had set up was working on the subject of human rights. But now, fortunately, there are numerous people in the country who are focusing on human rights, and in my view that is one of the impacts of my winning the Nobel peace prize.”

And, “the Nobel peace prize demonstrated to the Iranian people that human rights are the best way of realizing democracy.”

One more related comment: “The Nobel peace prize enabled me to raise my voice and make sure that more people around the globe hear me, which was naturally conducive to my work.”

Before we parted, Ebadi told me about her new book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny. She uses as her epigram a comment from Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian sociologist who lived from 1933 to 1975. He may appear an unusual person for Ebadi to be quoting: a revolutionary ideologue, part Khomeinist and part Marxist. He promoted something he called “red Shiism.”

Anyway, Ebadi recited the epigram to me: “If you cannot eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.”

In my National Review piece on her, I explained that her country’s authorities went into her safe-deposit box and stole her Nobel medal, along with other items (including her Légion d’honneur). That was in 2009.

I concluded my piece this way:

I bump into her at dinner, a few hours after her speech [to the Oslo Freedom Forum], and ask about her medal. She has it back. They have given it back to her. But they have kept her money, her house, and other things. We express together a simple thought: what a happy day it will be when she can go back and reclaim them.