Democracy Lab

How to Save the Regime in Tehran

Shirin Ebadi, Iran's leading human rights activist, explains why on attack on the country's nuclear program is just what the mullahs have been yearning for.

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi has a lot on her mind these days. She's spent her life working for the defense of human rights in her home country of Iran, but the reformists she sympathizes with are on the defensive, reeling from years of harsh repression. For the past three years she's been living in virtual exile in an undisclosed location in Western Europe, unable to return home without fear of arrest. The government has seized her property (including her Nobel Prize medal) and subjected her family members to harassment and detention. Now she spends her days traveling the world, fighting to draw attention to the abuses of human rights by the government in Tehran. "I feel it's my duty to help bring the voices of activists, and my comrades who are in prison, to the world," she says.

But now she has something even more serious to worry about: What if Israel launches a military strike against Iran? What if the crisis over Iran's nuclear program escalates out of control and spreads across the region?

The Israeli media have warned in recent weeks that a military attack may be imminent, since a presumed window allowing Israel to strike at Iran's nuclear program may close soon. The Israeli government claims that Iran's quest to continue with its nuclear program poses a serious threat, especially now that Iran seems to have expedited its efforts to enrich uranium -- a key stop on the path to building a nuclear bomb. The Iranian regime has maintained a hostile position toward Israel since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Iran contends that its nuclear program is peaceful, intended solely for power generation to bolster up a beleaguered economy. In any case, analysts have warned that a military strike is unlikely to halt the program and may only delay it for a few years. Iran has sheltered its nuclear facilities deep underground to protect from any possible military strikes, and has vowed that it would retaliate harshly if it comes under attack.

But Ebadi points to another problem. War with Israel, she says, may rescue the Iranian regime at a time when it is extremely unpopular at home and is clinging to power with an iron fist. "It is the only thing that can save the regime," she said. "A war will stir nationalistic feelings and rally the people behind the government to defend the country. It will be catastrophic for the [Iranian] people, the country, and the region, but it will save Iran's rulers."

In 2009, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest alleged vote fraud in the June presidential election. The use of extreme violence during and after the protests convinced many that the regime lacks the capacity for reform. The protests started peacefully, but turned violent when government forces attacked the demonstrations. Some of the protestors were shot. Many others ended up in prison, where they were often subjected to horrible abuse.

Lately the regime has even targeted its founding members for criticizing the status quo. Presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi, whom many believed was the winner of the election in 2009, and his wife have been under house arrest since February 2011. Opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi, a former speaker of Parliament, is in prison. Two former presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, have been publicly humiliated. Last week a court  sentenced Rafsanjani's daughter to a six-month jail term for supporting the reform movement, while his son was jailed on Monday on corruption charges. Khatami has been banned from leaving the country.

"It's a repressive situation, but also chaotic," says Ebadi. No one in the security apparatus has taken responsibility for Moussavi's arrest, she adds. She notes that judiciary officials have claimed that he is in the custody of the Revolutionary Guards, the special forces founded after the revolution to protect the regime. The Revolutionary Guards dismissed the claim, saying that he is in the custody of the Intelligence Ministry. The ministry retorted that the order for his arrest came from the office of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet no one seems to know where he is.

"It's dangerous when a regime reaches a point where it has no choice but to resort to this kind of brutality to survive," says Ebadi. "This is when it starts crumbling and eventually collapses."

Iran's economy is in a dire state, she says, which adds to people's frustration with the government. The value of its currency, the rial, has plunged by more than half against the dollar since last December. Inflation is over 23 percent, according to the Iranian central bank, and most people are struggling to keep food on their tables. The price of bread, the staple food in Iran, rose 40 percent in the month of June.

"I don't favor more sanctions against Iran, but I do not want to see the world ignore what the regime is doing to its people," Ebadi says.

The West has targeted Iran with a series of international sanctions because of its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program. In the latest phase of sanctions this summer, the European Union stopped importing Iranian oil (the country's main source of revenue). It is difficult to gauge how much of the economic malaise can be attributed to the sanctions, and how much to government mismanagement, which is rampant. The rial dropped by 17 percent earlier this month after the government mysteriously stopped the flow of foreign currency to importers -- even though the government still has over $100 billion in its reserves.

To Ebadi, it seems as though the Iranian authorities are intentionally trying to provoke a war by making inflammatory remarks. Last month, President Ahmadinejad, who has earned a reputation for his harsh anti-Israeli statements, called for the creation of a new Middle East freed from any trace of Americans or Zionists. (He previously caused an outrage by saying that "Israel must be wiped off the map," a line first used by Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s.) Earlier this year Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei described Israel as a regional "cancerous tumor" that "should be cut off, while Ahmadinejad went on to call the existence of Israel an "insult against humanity. "The remarks seemed even more provocative ahead of a trip to Iran by United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

"It appears that they want to say that ‘we are not afraid of a war, and in fact we welcome it,'" said Ebadi. "Iranian society is moving along a democratic and secular path -- and a war can reverse it. I have no doubt that the people will eventually prevail, but a military crisis will upend the calculus."

Iran is gearing up for a presidential election next June, the first since the 2009 vote that sparked mass protests against alleged electoral fraud. President Ahmadinejad will not be allowed to run after serving two consecutive terms. In addition, his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei have grown sour after he sacked the foreign and intelligence ministers -- two key figures handpicked by Khamenei.

That means that the only competitors for the post will come from the hard-line camp loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, while opposition leaders and reformist politicians remain behind bars. Ahmadinejad hinted in a televised address last month that he may remain in the race, raising speculations that perhaps one of his close allies will try to run. But it is not clear how Ayatollah Khamenei would react to an overt challenge of this kind.

Genuine political change is not likely to come from these tightly controlled elections, according to Ebadi. "We don't have free elections where people can vote for any candidate," she says, noting that the Guardian Council, a clerical watchdog body, is responsible for screening the candidates and barring anyone who might pose a threat. "We had a democratically elected president and parliament at one point, but their hands were tied." This refers to the eight years when Ayatollah Khatami, the reformist president who had promised to grant more political and social liberties, held the presidency and his allies dominated parliament. Khamenei, who chooses the head of the judiciary, worked hand-in-hand with the Guardian Council to block their efforts. Many of those parliamentarians have landed in prison or in exile.

Over the past three years Ebadi herself has received numerous death threats. Her husband, who remains in Tehran, periodically gets messages from anonymous sources claiming that "we will silence her ourselves" if his wife continues to speak out. But she continues her work undeterred, monitoring abuses whenever she can. One recent case: A government initiative to cut back the number of subjects women are allowed to study at university. To Ebadi, this is a clear response to the rising number of female students -- now nearly 65 percent of the total -- and a corresponding increase in female social activism.

With the help of a secretary, she drafts monthly reports on the human rights situation in Iran and sends them to the media, United Nations agencies, and human rights organizations. If an urgent issue appears, she drafts a statement and circulates it immediately. Last month, she was alarmed by a report indicating that some 37 Iranian universities were banning women from studying 77 majors. In addition to engineering, the ban barred women from studying English literature and English translation, majors traditionally dominated by female students. "This is part of an effort to send women back to the home," she charges.

Despite this continued government repression, some actions by Western governments have potential to persuade ruling Iranian officials to act otherwise. Ebadi has welcomed the blacklisting of some 100 individuals and companies involved in human rights abuses in Iran. European and U.S. sanctions have singled out by name militia commanders and judges implicated in the harassment and jailing of activists as well as military commanders and nuclear scientists involved in Iran's nuclear program. All have been banned from entering Europe and the United States, and their overseas bank accounts have been frozen.

"There are only a handful of judges who are willing to issue harsh sentences now," says Ebadi. "Many in the establishment have realized that they have to pay a high price if they comply with the regime, and it seems that they're reluctant to do so."

ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages

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