While the United States and Britain are talking about tougher sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on its gas and oil industry—Tehran’s major source of revenue —Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Noble Peace Prize laureate and international human rights defender, argues that this tactic has not weakened the government, but the Iranian people.
In mid-June, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown assured U.S. President George W. Bush of the European Union’s intention to review new sanctions, adding to pressure on Tehran to halt enriching uranium.
Iran has not yet responded to the incentives package offered by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and has ignored U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend enriching uranium.
In an interview with Inter Press Service (IPS) correspondent Omid Memarian, Ebadi said that Iran should respect the U.N. resolutions and stop enriching uranium to gain the international community’s trust. However, she also believes that any preemptive military strike against Iran by the United States would be a violation of international law.
IPS: As Iran’s most prominent human rights advocate, what are the options regarding Tehran’s insistence on enriching uranium and the U.S. precondition of halting enrichment to start negotiations?
Shirin Ebadi: Both the Iranian and American governments should respect United Nations Security Council’s resolutions and international laws and act according to those directives. This means that Iran should heed the UNSC’s resolutions and suspend uranium enrichment to receive international trust. The United States must also be aware that preemptive strikes are against international laws. The U.S. government cannot use any excuse for a military strike against Iran, such as was done in Iraq. We constantly hear from U.S. officials that "all options, including a military attack on Iran, are on the table," and this really worries the Iranian people.
IPS: How far do you think the Iranian government will go to pursue its nuclear program?
SE: I don’t reject the right to peaceful nuclear technology for any country, including Iran. The question, however, is whether we can put a wall around Iran and say we want nothing to do with the rest of the world. The answer is no. We have to cooperate in the international arena and this cooperation demands us to respect international laws and to accept U.N. Security Council resolutions.
IPS: Would accepting the West’s proposed incentives package help build trust between Iran and the West?
SE: I believe accepting the UNSC’s resolutions will help Iran to improve its relations with the U.S. and Europe on an international level. I believe this will eliminate dangers posed by warmongers.
IPS: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried to make Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear energy a matter of national pride. On the other hand, the West looks at Iran’s program as a threat to the world’s security. How can this crisis come to an end that satisfies both sides?
SE: The Iranian people are paying for the costs of persistence on the nuclear program, not the government. Economic sanctions have affected Iran adversely, hurting people in the process who are tired of economic pressure. Without any desire to take sides in U.S. politics, I would like to say a war and military threats against Iran will not solve the U.S-Iran crisis. A rational conclusion can only be reached through dialogue and diplomatic negotiations.
IPS: So far, two options have been discussed by the Republican and Democratic candidates: direct talks with Iranian leaders and increased economic sanctions, and if this fails, a military attack on Iran. Which option do you believe realistically addresses the prevailing conditions of Iran and the Middle East?
SE: I believe negotiations must be conducted directly and publicly at the civil society, parliamentary, and heads of state levels, aiming to reach a comprehensive compromise on Iran’s nuclear program and defend human and democratic rights as well. It appears that the United States is preoccupied with its own security concerns in addressing the nuclear issue negotiations with the Iranian government, ignoring human rights in Iran. This forgotten element has caused a serious regression in the situation of human rights in Iran over the past years.
IPS: To what extent will direct talks with Iranian leaders put an end to the West’s concerns, or it will be an irrational and futile effort?
SE: It all depends on whether the leaders of these countries have reached the point of rational decision-making about whether a war would solve their problems or not. When signs of rational thinking are visible among the leaders, a peaceful resolution will be found.
IPS: Do you currently see this rational thinking or any signs of it?
SE: Rational thinking is measured at a given moment. I mean that in one moment everything can change entirely. To borrow a soccer analogy about the question, I should say politics has a 90th minute, too. It is possible for things to change in favor of both nations in the 90th minute. I hope this to be the case, but if things continue on the same path as they are going today, I don’t anticipate pleasant results.
IPS: When you talk to people, do you hear that Iranians want a normalization of relations between the United States and Iran?
SE: They believe this will [positively] affect their livelihood. About two million Iranians live in the United States. They are good citizens for the U.S. and in their trade, commerce, and education, they comprise a successful minority group in the U.S. If each one of these people has five relatives in Iran, you can easily estimate the number of people interested in normalized relations between Iran and the U.S. The relationship between the two nations has always been peaceful. We can forget our governments and continue our friendship.
IPS: What do you think will happen if Iran does not accept the Europeans’ incentive package?
SE: If the Iranian government does not obey the UNSC’s resolutions, they will naturally have to withstand the international legal ramifications, one of which is intensified economic sanctions, and this is not in the best interests of the Iranian people.
IPS: Are Iranian people aware of those options vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear issue and how much each of those options may cost them?
SE: One of the problems with Iranian politics is that decisions are made in closed rooms and away from public scrutiny, and this is why I say neglecting democracy is a lot more dangerous than owning a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, with the severe censorship at work in Iran, they lack the knowledge and don’t know what consequences await them. They can only know when they are privy to the negotiations and decisions. Over the past 29 years, Iranian people have experienced a revolution and a bloody eight-year war with Iraq. They are tired of bloodshed and violence and want a peaceful life. Therefore they would welcome any means towards a peaceful resolution of problems.
IPS: Are you fearful of freely expressing your views? Do you face any problems in view of the threatening phone calls you have reported recently and the prevailing censorship?
SE: Human rights defenders all over the world are exposed to risk, because they can’t belong to any political parties or groups and they must address governments while they have no political supporters, representing the silent people. They face risks anywhere in the world. But I must say having lived with these risks for many years now, I have learned not to let such threats affect my direction. I will say what is in the best interests of people and they can be offended or advised by my words.
IPS: Are the threatening phoning calls continuing?
SE: Death threats are nothing new to me. They started about 12 years ago and they are not only limited to me, as other intellectuals also face it. But as I said, it is our duty to say what is in the best interest of our people.
Omid Memarian is World Peace Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a regular contributor to the Inter Press Service.
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