Iran: 'Hit the regime, not the people'

Nobel Prize winner urges the West to spare ordinary Iranians and concentrate instead on firms that have backed the Tehran government.

NEW YORK // Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel prize-winning lawyer, has urged the international community not to ignore Tehran's violations of human rights as it tries to impose new sanctions over Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

In an interview with The National, she said sanctions should not burden the Iranian people but penalise companies that have helped the regime tackle and censor the opposition Green Movement. The movement arose after last June's bitterly contested election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, claimed victory. "I oppose any sanctions that are to the detriment of the Iranian people. But not giving visas to politicians or an embargo on arms is not to the detriment of the people," she said in New York, where she was attending a conference of the United Nations women's commission.

The West, led by the United States, is currently pushing the international community to agree on a fourth round of UN sanctions aimed at stopping the alleged Iranian nuclear programme, which Tehran claims is peaceful. The United States has also imposed its own tough penalties on companies doing business with Iran. "We expect the government of the United States to act in the framework of human rights," said Ms Ebadi, speaking on Saturday through a translator.

"Approximately three months ago, the US fined a Swiss bank that had engaged in transactions with Iran. Can the US also fine companies ... that help censorship in Iran? The betterment of human rights in Iran is on us, the Iranians, and all we're asking is don't help the government repress the people." She singled out Eutelsat Communications, a France-based satellite company, and Nokia Siemens Networks, a Finnish-German mobile systems company, whose equipment, she and other Iranian protesters have said, was helping Tehran's repression of political opponents.

Nokia Siemens Networks said its mobile networks had a standard capability for law-enforcement agencies to listen in on conversations. "That's a standard feature on all mobile networks in the world," Ben Roome, company spokesman, told Reuters. Eutelsat has refused to say publicly that the Iranian government is responsible for the jamming of channels, such as the BBC's Persian television service, according to The Guardian daily, which cited anonymous sources saying the operator "caved in to commercial" pressures from other customers broadcasting on the same transponder.

Ms Ebadi said sanctions that were purely economic would backfire while Tehran would find ways to physically circumvent them. "[Economic sanctions] do not change the behaviour of governments ... Iran is very close to Russia and they share kilometres of border ... Iran does have ways to get around sanctions and if sanctions pertain to the nuclear issue, then the natural emotions of people will be raised."

Ms Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has not been to Iran since she left the day before last June's elections to attend a conference in Spain. She said she had travelled almost constantly since then and her longest stay in one place was 20 days with her daughter in Atlanta in the United States. Back in Iran, the government has confiscated her Nobel Prize and her husband, sister and law partner were arrested and beaten. But colleagues have urged her to stay abroad to spread the message about what was happening back home. She said she would return to Iran if she felt she could be of more use there.

"I'm not happy about my family under stress and all my properties were seized by the government," she said with understatement. "But I'm more concerned about the huge number of political prisoners and executions in Iran. Just three days ago, the execution order of a young student became final. Mr [Mohammad Amin] Valian was in the campaign of [pro-reform candidate Mirhossein] Mousavi and he was accused by the prosecution of throwing three rocks during a demonstration and these rocks did not even hit anyone."

Ms Ebadi is also a firm opponent of civilian nuclear power. "Both Iran and the UAE are wrong to pursue nuclear power even if for peaceful purposes. It's been proved it's not useful energy for the environment," she said. "Both Iran and the Emirates have lots of sun so why not go for solar energy? Even if Iran does have peaceful purposes, it's not the right thing to do." She said she constantly asked western countries not to focus only on the nuclear issue at the expense of human rights in their dealings with Tehran.

"I have a question for western governments," she said. "Assuming Iran agreed with the west on the nuclear programme, does the west care about the people of Iran? And if in response they said it's a matter of national sovereignty, then what's the point of calling human rights a universal matter? What we expect is the West to talk about democracy and human rights." She was sure the reform movement would eventually prove victorious but said it was impossible to predict when this would happen. She believes the advent of democracy would resolve nuclear tension. The lack of democracy in Iran was "just as dangerous for world peace as the atomic bomb", she said.

"Saddam didn't have the bomb and he invaded Kuwait. France and England have the atomic bomb but they haven't used it against anyone," she said. "This is why non-democratic governments are more dangerous for the peace of the world."