Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Iran: Fire Under the Ashes

by Isobel Coleman
April 26, 2011

Last week I hosted a meeting at CFR with the courageous human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She is publishing a new book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny (Kales Press, 2011), a gripping story of a modern Iranian family torn apart by politics and ideology. The family is a tragic microcosm of Iran itself, and a sad lesson in how revolutions eat their own.

Dr. Ebadi has been living in exile since June 2009. She left Iran just before President Ahmedinejad’s contested election to give a talk in Spain, thinking she would be gone for less than a week. But as she says, with the eruption of massive post-election public protests over the course of several days, “everything changed.” The brutal government crackdown that followed made it impossible for her to return. In her absence, the Iranian government has hurled accusations and threats against her and her family, hassled her friends and clients, and confiscated her Nobel Prize money. The regime had already shut down her Center for the Defense of Human Rights in 2008. Still, she remains unbowed, and in many ways optimistic about her country. She claims that the government in Iran is in fact weak—the fact that it has arrested so many student leaders and women activists shows that it is scared of the youth movement. She does not expect the regime to survive many more years in its current form. She shared these and other insights in a video interview with me:

Of the besieged Green Movement, she acknowledges that it has been suppressed, but insists that it is still very much alive: “Iran is like fire under the ashes. Any wind can again blow the flames.” While the recent winds of the Arab Spring have not been sufficient to reignite that flame, she says that the Iranian regime is nervously watching events unfold across the region. If a democratic regime takes hold in Egypt, it will be a blow to Iran’s revolutionary narrative. A revitalized, democratic Egypt would pose an enormous challenge to Iran, stirring up not only Arab-Persian rivalries but also strategic ones. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would also be a blow to the Iranian regime—a loss of its main regional ally.

While she would much prefer to be living back home, Dr. Ebadi uses her time in exile to remind the world of the importance of focusing on Iran’s human rights violations. She insists that world attention, and censure, does matter. The epigram of her new book is a quote from Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati: “If you cannot eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.” Shirin Ebadi certainly lives up to that inspiration.

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