Civil unrest and a nationwide uprising against Iran’s authoritarian theocracy have gone unabated since Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, died while in the custody of the country’s morality police this past September.
In the ensuing months, hundreds have been killed in crackdowns by the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, four others have been tried and hung; thousands have been arrested as political prisoners. The regime’s methods appear to have stymied early hopes that rapid regime change was imminent, but by all indications, the ruling clerics have been caught off-guard by the sustained pressure of the protests.
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, believes the brutal behavior of the mullahs’ regime, along with the death of Amini, tapped into decades years of pent-up anger among many Iranians over issues ranging from the country’s wrecked economy, discrimination against women, sectarian and ethnic minorities, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ iron grip on all aspects of society.
Ebadi, a staunch critic of the Islamic Republic’s policies, recently sat down, to discuss the political and social situation in Iran, as well as a perceived backslide with regard to human rights and democracy around the world.
*Editor’s note: Due to the constant change of events in Iran, some segments of this interview have been omitted due to the time-sensitive nature of Ms. Ebadi’s responses.
NE GLOBAL (NEG): The protests in Iran have continued for months. Will there be some sort of positive result?
SHIRIN EBADI (SE): The major problem is Iran’s constitution. Nothing will improve, because the Islamic Republic’s constitution says one cleric, the Supreme Leader, has all the power. He can issue death penalties, be the head of the army, veto any law and all elections are under his strict supervision. That needs to change. If the protests can lead to a fundamental change in the constitution, that is an important development. But this will take time.
NEG: What do you think the actual situation is on the streets of Iran?
SE: The killing of this innocent young woman, Mahsa Amini, was the last straw for the people of Iran. Remember, this type of brutality has been going on for 43 years. Whoever talks about the problems of the people, about the problems of society, is seen as a threat by the regime. The only response the people of Iran have received for their requests for change has been imprisonment, or even being put to death. Iranians have tried every other possible way to work for change, for many years. Those who thought they could reform the regime have continually been disappointed. Now they know that they have no other solution.
What I will say is that this time it is different. For one thing, this young generation is much better informed than the previous one. They know that they do not have a future if the Islamic Republic keeps going. We now have a great number of well-educated young people; but among them, 40% cannot find work. Those who find work are not earning enough to leave the family home to make a living for themselves. It’s clear that in this type of situation, why the young people of Iran are taking to the streets to protest. The people want a secular and democratic government. As we’ve seen, women have been at the forefront of every protest. In fact, it will be Iranian women who will open the gate to democracy in the country.
NEG: When you won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the world was a very different place, are you concerned about the negative developments in terms of human rights around the globe?
SE: Unfortunately, both human rights and democracy are going backwards in the world. If you look at my country, the situation is getting worse every day. You also have to look at what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. He’s invaded another country. There’s also Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad in Syria. To stay in power, he destroyed his own country. Over half of a million people were killed in his civil war. We also have President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan in Turkey, and we see what he regularly does to the Kurds. On top of that, there are all the tribal wars taking place in Africa. There’s not much room for optimism.
NEG: Do you think there’s been a democratic backslide in Europe?
SE: Yes, there are concerning signs. Around the globe, countries are dependent on each other and Europe is by no means separated from the rest of humanity. I think that the entire world is going backwards, and Europe is no exception. As I’m Iranian, my major concern is for my country. Europe is one of the civilizational centers of democracy and human rights, but I see that it has closed its eyes to my country. To keep order and protect the security of Europe, they continue to deal with the Iranian regime. It’s unfortunate that Angela Merkel stepped down as German chancellor. I think a lot of pressure was put on her regarding the refugee situation that she just decided to quit politics. That Brexit happened, and the UK withdrew from the European Union, was also a negative development. If you want to speak in general terms, I would say that all of us have taken a step back.
NEG: Some critics think that democracy is weak in the EU because Europe is weak. Do you agree with that?
SE: Let’s not think that Europe is greater than it is. Why does Europe always think of itself as the center of the world? Each country has its own responsibilities. The truth is that Europeans have forgotten what their real duty is. I think one thing that has happened here is materialism. That’s where the problem starts. Young people now are after quick money, but in the past, young people preferred to be involved in social issues. When I was young, our heroes were people who were very politically active. But now, heroes are people who obliviously drive expensive cars while an autocratic government does what it wants.
NEG: What do you think is the relation between winning an election and acting in a democratic way?
SE: What if the devil is elected by the people? That doesn’t mean he’s right. I think this is a major misunderstanding of how democracy actually works. What I want to stress is that democracy is not just about elections. The majority who wins an election does not have the right to do whatever they want. Democracy has a framework of human rights principles. The majority that wins has to work within that framework. A better description of democracy would be a government that cannot operate solely on the results of an election, but also by taking into consideration human rights. That’s the real meaning of democracy.