Confront Iran on brutality not nuclear weapons, says Nobel prize winner

Western governments are indirectly helping the Islamic regime to repress its own people, Shirin Ebadi tells Katherine Butler

She was Iran's first female judge, served time in the country's prisons for challenging the Islamic regime and, to the chagrin of its hardline rulers, became, in 2003, the only Iranian citizen to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the disputed presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and the crushed "green revolution" that followed, Shirin Ebadi has attacked the hypocrisy of Western governments who focus on Iran's nuclear ambitions, but stay silent on the repression of Iranians who are demanding the very freedoms which would bring about democracy in Iran.

In an interview with The Independent, the human rights lawyer warned that the ruling cabal is using "unheard of" violence against its people, worse than at any time since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.

Twelve months after the remarkable events which, for a brief spell last June, looked sufficiently dramatic to topple Mr Ahmadinejad and cause the Islamic revolution itself to unravel, the "green" movement is a badly depleted, if not spent, force. Executions, televised show trials, reports of prison torture and rape have left a population fearful and apparently drained of the will to keep the green drumbeat going.

However, Dr Ebadi strongly rejected the suggestion that the movement is defeated, insisting that it is the regime which is being torn apart both by its own unpopularity and internal struggles between hardliners and their critics. "The present violence is unheard of in the 30 years since the Islamic revolution. In the past, they used to save the violence for those who were anti the regime. Now they're using it against those from within their own ranks," she said.

She cites a recent move against the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the 1979 revolution. "This is definitely the sign of an internal struggle. What the outcome of that struggle will be we cannot predict yet."

In the immediate term, she warned, the government's vulnerability would inevitably mean an increase in executions, extreme jail terms for activists, and other forms of intimidation.

Seeking perhaps to rally the spirits of those in her homeland who last year endured a brutal police and militia crackdown after taking to the streets, the Nobel laureate – now forced into a peripatetic exile – forecast that Iranian people would yet defy their rulers. "There is fire beneath the ashes." she said. "Anything can make this fire blow again".

But she condemned what she called the "unfortunate" obsession in the US, Britain and other European countries with the nuclear dispute – to the exclusion of any action to defend ordinary Iranians' rights.

The UN Security Council on Wednesday adopted a fourth round of punitive sanctions against Iran over its nuclear enrichment, but Dr Ebadi questioned the relevance of measures geared at stopping Iran acquiring more weapons.

"The Iranian government has already dedicated enough of its budget to weapons and doesn't need to grow its stockpile any further", she said.

She didn't go as far as some of her supporters, privately dismayed at the timing of Barack Obama's sanctionspush on the eve of the anniversary. But she dismissed the nuclear question as "not at all important to the people of Iran".

"What matters to them is to have a job and to have freedom, and they have neither. The reason they demonstrate, even if they know they will be killed or arrested, is because of the lack of jobs and freedom."

Dr Ebadi accused Western governments of failing to take more effective steps out of a cynical fear of losing business contracts or markets in Iran. This meant they remained silent or, worse, colluded in the brutal clampdown. She claimed that a satellite communications company, part-owned by the French state, had bowed to pressure from the Iranian regime to block transmission of the BBC Persian and Voice of America TV channels– both valuable sources of uncensored information for Iranians. Nokia, the Finnish multinational, had sold Iran technology that allows the regime to spy on and then jail, mobile phone users.

Western governments, she said, should instead cease issuing travel visas to Iranian politicians, and blacklist companies whose products or technologies are sold to Iran and used for repression. "The Iranian people have the right to ask themselves whether the French government believes in freedom of expression or not. And if they they do, why don't they stop these kinds of transactions? ... All we ask of Western countries is that they don't support the Iranian government in the repression."

Life in Iran a year after the green awakening has, on the surface, returned to a tense normality. But that is an illusion, Dr Ebadi said. "What is clear is that the population remains extremely dissatisfied. They would pay any price for change." Yet, not all of the protesters wanted the same thing. That is because the green movement is "not ideological" said Dr Ebadi. Some would be satisfied with reform within the framework of the Islamic Republic. "Others think the problems lie within the very roots of the system and that it has to be uprooted. It is not yet possible to predict which trend ... will prevail."

She admitted it could take "years" for Iran to achieve democracy but "ultimately" the people would triumph. "The government can keep the people silent for a while longer through weapons and repression, but this is not a long-term solution".

In 1979, the young judge supported the religious revolution before she realised it would strip women of their human rights. Last June, she boarded a plane out of Tehran just as the biggest outpouring of public protest since the 1979 revolution got underway. As the panic-stricken regime rounded up students, journalists, lawyers, women's rights activists and even clergymen, she travelled abroad and has not been back since, knowing she risks house arrest or worse. Members of her family have been threatened in her absence.

The human rights lawyer once discovered her own name on a death squad hit list drawn up by the government so is not scared. "I've been threatened for years now. This is not the reason why I don't go back to Iran. Whenever I feel that I'm more useful inside Iran, that I have the capacity to work there again, I'll go back."

For the moment, she is focusing on raising awareness internationally. Yesterday, she launched a campaign in Paris organised by the International Federation of Human Rights to highlight the plight of 40 named journalists, trade unionists and and women's rights activists currently in jail.

A practising Muslim who believes that the correct interpretation of Islam is compatible with democracy, Dr Ebadi sees hope in the weakness of the regime. She realised last month, she says, just how politically bruised it was when the corpses of five political prisoners who were executed were buried in secret, the government fearing that the funerals would become the focus for a fresh wave of protests.

"A government that is scared by the dead bodies of their opponents is a very weak power. And they are getting weaker and weaker. Their violence grows in inverse proportion to their weakness" she said. Iran's future, she predicted, would be determined by a range of factors, including the international price of oil, the situation in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, and relations with Russia and China.

Was she surprised by the scale of last year's protests? "Nobody predicted it. But as I keep saying, Iran is a fire under the ashes. And nobody ever knows when the wind will blow the ashes away."

The 'Green' movement: Opposition calls off protest to mark anniversary of poll

A reflection of how Iran's opposition has been cowed since last year is that plans for a demonstration to mark the anniversary of the disputed 12 June 2009 presidential poll have been called off. The Green movement's leaders had applied for a permit to process in silence, wearing green wristbands or scarves, but even that, it seems, was too much for the hardliners and the militaristic cabal that surrounds the current government.

Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two of the defeated presidential candidates who a year ago were able to rally a million people on the streets of Tehran, yesterday issued a statement saying they were cancelling. "A number of parties and reformist groups have given similar requests to the interior ministry... and they have announced that they have no hope that they would get permission... in order to preserve lives and property, the rally will not be held".

A year ago, the Green wave seemed such a powerful force that even hardliners believed there was a threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic. Mohammad Ali Jafari, a leading figure in the Revolutionary Guards, has revealed that he thought it posed a greater danger than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Sporadic protests may yet take place but many Iranians are scared."The presence of the armed forces is palpable," said one Tehran resident. "People want to demonstrate but they won't. They're afraid of being arrested and tortured or raped."