Don’t Trust Rouhani – Iran’s Nobel Peace laureate speaks

20 March 2014

 The following interview was taken by Die Welt journalist Florian Eder during Shirin Ebadi's visit to Brussels.

Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, has been watching with what she calls a kind of sober realism as relations between the West and her native Iran have strengthened in recent months.Living in exile in Britain since 2009, she was invited last week by the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based think tank, to meet with members of the European Parliament. Five years after becoming the European Union’s foreign policy representative, Catherine Ashton went to Iran for the first time last year. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani can count her visit as a diplomatic success, and there is now hope for an official EU diplomatic mission in Teheran.

But in an interview with Die Welt in Brussels, Ebadi says that before there can be such an EU mission in Tehran, the Iranian government has to show that it is willing to support minimum human rights standards.

Die Welt: Ms. Ebadi, you have been living in exile since 2009. How do you stay in contact with Iran?
Ebadi: My office is in London. I am in daily contact with my colleagues. We work well together. Just today I spoke with Narges Mohammedi, one of the human rights activists that Ms. Ashton met with during her visit.

Do you mean the meeting with women’s rights’ activists that took place in the Austrian embassy in Tehran? The Iranian government has seriously criticized that encounter, seemingly due to pressure from conservatives.
That meeting was provocative for the hardliners, and the consequences included criticism directed at the foreign minister for having allowed it, and criticism of Ashton’s entire visit by the Iranian Parliament.

Did President Rouhani go too far and endanger his support?
Yes. There are already signs on the streets of Tehran that show half of Ms. Ashton’s face and the other half as Saddam Hussein. Young people demonstrated in front of the Austrian embassy, with signs that said, “Miss Ashton, this is not Ukraine.”

There was a lot of hope for the opening-up of society after Rouhani’s inauguration. That has happened before, more than 10 years ago, when President Mohammad Khatami came to power. But in the end nothing happened. How are the two similar?
The similarity is this: The hardliners are just as big of a problem for Rouhani as they were for Khatami.

The number of executions in Iran has dramatically risen since Rouhani came to power in August. How does that fit with his image of a reformer?
It shows Rouhani’s true colors. He has no power. And that is the whole truth and reality about Mr. Rouhani.

The true power lies with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei?

What does that say about the chance for dialogue?
It’s good that the Iranian regime understands that it can’t exist in isolation, it can’t build a wall around itself. The pressure from economic sanctions has forced the government to sit at the negotiating table, at least in terms of the nuclear question. I hope that the Iranian government is wise enough not to abandon the negotiating table again.

Now the EU is considering creating an Iran delegation and restarting political dialogue. Would you welcome that?
We should look at the reasons for and the goals of any official dialogue, the motivation of both sides. One can sit together and talk for eternity without achieving anything.

What should the EU’s goals be?
I hope that the goal is to improve the human rights situation in Iran.

The dialogue has already broken down in a spectacular fashion once before, when the Iranian side decided to leave the table. How can Europe be sure that that won’t happen again? What preconditions should the EU insist on?
For starters, Europe should ask Iran to stop holding executions in public.

You think the public nature of the executions is important?
I am against the death penalty. But Iran would never agree to abandon executions entirely. But it is very simple to stop doing them in public. Since Rouhani has been in office, there have been 11 executions on public streets. That should be illegal. Also, minors accused of crimes should not be executed. Now the regime just waits until the minors are over the legal age, and then they execute them. 

You are a pessimist.
No, I am realist. That is why I am in favor of very simple preconditions.

In the crisis in Ukraine and in the nuclear conflict with Iran, Europe has been very involved. Do you think the opinions of the EU carry any weight?
Yes, why not?

Because for a long time, that wasn’t the case.
I think that the EU’s voice is often listened to.

Does the EU have a better chance of bringing the Iranian leadership to negotiations than other players?
Yes. Iran’s leaders still call the U.S. the “Great Satan.”