This activist says Iranians want to eliminate the position of supreme leader. The West can help.
By Eli Lake April 5, 2018
Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer, has had enough. For years she represented her country’s dissidents in the Islamic Republic’s corrupt courts. She spoke out for the rights of women, minorities and students abroad. But she never called for the end of the regime she was fighting to reform. Until now.
“Reform is useless in Iran,” Ebadi told me in an interview Thursday. “The Iranian people are very dissatisfied with their current government. They have reached the point and realized this system is not reformable.”
For Ebadi the means of ending Iranian tyranny should be a U.N.-monitored referendum on the constitution that proposes a basic change: the elimination of the unelected office of supreme leader. The Iranian people, she said, “want to change our regime, by changing our constitution to a secular constitution based on the universal declaration of human rights.”
Ebadi’s radicalism, along with the mass demonstrations that began at the end of December, is a powerful rebuke to the foreign policy consensus among many Western progressives who still pine for Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, to deliver on the reforms he promised in his 2013 and 2017 campaigns.
Ebadi told me she never believed Rouhani was a reformer. Nonetheless, she also said she was reluctant to call for the end of the regime, because the 1979 revolution was so traumatic. This is why she says the current uprising has no single leader. “In the course of the struggle the leaders will emerge,” she told me. “When we have free elections in Iran, the leaders will show themselves.”
Ebadi first made her views known in a statement published in February with 13 other dissidents and human rights advocates to call for the referendum. In her interview with me however she for the first time got more specific about what Western governments and particularly the Trump administration can do to assist the Iranian people in their struggle.
To start, she made it clear that she was not calling for a military invasion of Iran or any kind of U.S. interference with the movement itself. “The regime change in Iran should take place inside Iran and by the people of Iran,” she said. “But you can help the people of Iran reach their own goal.”
To this end, Ebadi had some recommendations. The basic idea is that the West should implement sanctions that weaken the regime, but do not hurt the people themselves. For example, Ebadi says the U.S. and European governments should sanction the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB. This conglomerate controls the media in Iran, and also manages Iran’s external foreign propaganda such as the English-language PressTV and the Arabic al-Alam.
There are few entities more deserving of censure and sanction. Inside Iran, the IRIB broadcasts a weekly television show that airs the coerced confessions of political prisoners. For Ebadi this is personal. One of those broadcasts featured her husband after he was set up in a Soviet-style sting and filmed with prostitutes drinking alcohol. While in Evin prison, Ebadi’s husband was flogged for drinking and threatened with death by stoning for adultery if he did not confess to the alleged illegal activities of his famous wife. Eventually he relented. “My husband was forced to confirm the alleged veracity of all the charges they regularly bring against me,” she said.
So Ebadi said targeting IRIB is a good way of crippling the regime’s ability to attack its opponents and spread its propaganda. The concept is simple. She said no Western satellite provider should allow IRIB to broadcast its propaganda abroad.
Ebadi told me she was wary of reimposing some of the most crippling sanctions that were lifted in 2016 in the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. The secondary sanctions on Iran’s central bank, she said, benefitted figures close to the regime who made a fortune in hiding the money of regime elites. Meanwhile, average Iranians suffered hyper-inflation.
That said, Ebadi said European businesses were wise to hold off on striking deals. “They are reluctant to invest in a country with no political stability,” she said. “How could you trust a government when every day in several corners of the country people are demonstrating and are unhappy? My message to the Iranian government, if you want foreign capital and the creation of jobs, you need to make people happy.”
For now Ebadi thinks it is important for the U.S. to establish a channel to the legitimate and independent Iranian opposition. This however is trickier than it sounds. She warned the regime had established all kinds of fake nongovernment organizations and groups overseas that appear independent, but really do the government’s bidding.
One example is a group known as the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, which has represented Iranian civil society at the annual meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council. In 2011, the Center for Human Rights in Iran described it as “an NGO that in spite of its name, has not done anything during the session to defend the rights of Iranian victims of violence.” Indeed, Ebadi told me that its former executive director, Alireza Taheri, was her interrogator when she was arrested in 2005.
Another example Ebadi pointed to was the National Iranian American Council, or NIAC. NIAC played an important role in advocating for President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Ebadi told me she regrets participating in an event with NIAC in 2011. “When I analyzed what they say and do,” Ebadi said, “I realize what they say is closer to what the government says than what the people want.”
Ebadi said she would support a new organization of Iranian-Americans to support her country’s freedom movement — “an organization that would be independent from the Iranian government and the U.S. government.”
Ebadi’s proposals pose a real challenge for Western liberals who still hope engaging the regime will lead to reform. Ebadi has lost that hope. “People spontaneously came out onto the streets in 70 cities and called for a referendum,” she said. “As a human rights defender, I have the duty of helping our people reach these goals.”
That goal is a referendum to reject the very core of the Islamic Republic: rule by a supreme clerical leader. Ebadi is asking for solidarity. Will Western liberals join her?