At least 400 dissidents, activists and intellectuals–a number far larger than previously reported–were murdered in Iran during a wave of officially sanctioned, government death-squad activity that ended in 1999, according to Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Prize-winning human rights lawyer who is currently on a speaking tour in the United States. But Ebadi insists that US threats against Iran and rhetoric about regime change could make things worse, giving Iran’s leaders an excuse to intensify repression.
In an interview with The Nation, Ebadi said that she has documentation for one-third of those killings, and that information about the rest comes from the personal testimony of a man who admitted his role in the November 1998 murders of Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, who were hacked to pieces in their Tehran home. The Forouhars, critics of the Iranian regime, were part of the coalition that supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist leader who was toppled by a CIA-backed coup d’état in 1953.
Ebadi, a Tehran-based attorney and former judge who has battled the government over human-rights abuses for years, says that what she calls the pattern of “chain murders” has halted since then. But she warns that the human-rights situation in Iran remains grave. On April 2, Ebadi herself received an anonymous threat in a letter delivered to her office that read: “Your death is near.”
Chillingly, she said that Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, the minister of intelligence under whose authority the hundreds of murders were carried out, was never punished–merely shifted to another top position. Today, Dorri-Najafabadi is the head of Iran’s Supreme Administrative Court. “For years I’ve been receiving threats, either on the phone or in written form,” she says. “Those who write me these letters oppose my opinions and my mentality, and they want to threaten and intimidate me.”
Ebadi is not intimidated, and she continues to represent dissidents and others caught up in the labyrinthine Iranian court system. But she warns that threats and bellicose rhetoric from American leaders and politicians is not helping matters. “The most important thing is not to militarily attack Iran, or to threaten to attack Iran militarily,” she says. “Even the language of some of the candidates in the United States threatens Iran.”
In addition, Ebadi is highly critical of the Bush Administration’s efforts to promote democracy in Iran, particularly the creation of a multimillion-dollar fund to assist Iranian activists. “When the United States says that it has allocated $70 million for democracy in Iran, whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having accepted part of that money, and of being on the US side,” she says. “It gives Iran an excuse for what it does.” All credible Iranian activists have refused to accept American funding, and most of the money has been funneled into radio broadcasts and other US propaganda.
Ebadi also dismisses the notion that economic sanctions will affect Iran’s behavior. “Sanctions damage the interests of the people, and they’re not going to topple the government of Iran, because the government has a lot of income from the price of oil because the price is so high.” The only sort of sanctions she is willing to support are direct, political sanctions that target Iran’s leaders, from those involved in the Iranian nuclear program to the country’s highest officials. Such sanctions, she suggests, could restrict these officials’ travel abroad and could order the seizure of privately held assets. In addition, Ebadi believes, the world’s countries could collectively shun the Iranian state. “What I mean is that all the countries of the world should reduce or lower the level of their political relations with Iran, so that they convince Iran to improve the situation of human rights. This was you can isolate the government of Iran without really damaging the people,” she says.
But the best course is one of dialogue. “The political sanctions should be used as a last resort,” she says. “Dialogue has to take place at three levels: at the level of people and civil society, among members of parliament of both countries, and by heads of government of both countries. And negotiations have to be direct and public.”
Within Iran, support for the regime is sagging, says Ebadi. Though opinion polls can be unreliable, she cites recent election numbers to tell the story. “When [reformist President] Khatami was elected to the presidency, he got 22 million votes. But when Ahmadinejad was elected…he only got 14 million votes. Do these numbers speak to you?” In fact, millions of Iranians boycotted the elections, which were widely seen as fraudulent.
The 2005 election of Ahmadinejad and the March, 2008, parliamentary elections gave near-total control to hardliners in Iran, and Ebadi is not hopeful that the pendulum will swing back quickly, especially without concerted international efforts. “When we speak about reform, we are speaking about the gradual improvement of society,” she says. “If something changes overnight, then that is called revolution, it is not called reform. And I think that the time for revolution has passed. So we need to speak about gradual change.”