Nobel Peace Prize winner slams US-Iran sanctions

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

At Yale Law School on Monday, Shirin Ebadi — a human rights advocate and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize — lambasted both the current Iranian government and the United States’ actions towards Iran.

Speaking through a translator in the Law School auditorium, Ebadi chastised the current Iranian government for censorship, human rights abuses and intervention in the domestic affairs of a slew of other countries. But at the same time, she leveled sharp criticism at the U.S.’ current regime of economic sanctions against Iran, which she said are harmful to the Iranian people.

“Now that they are backing sanctions against Iran, America has made things for the people of Iran more difficult,” Ebadi said. “There are ways to weaken the government and not harm the people.”

After becoming the first Iranian female judge — a position she acquired at only age 23 — Ebadi was repeatedly demoted, first to clerk and then secretary, following the 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought the country’s Islamic government to power. Islamists claimed that women were unfit to hold high positions.

Over the next 20 years, Ebadi engaged in increasingly political work as a lawyer and human rights activist. In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for the rights of women and children. After the Iranian government confiscated the prize in 2009, she left Iran and has not returned since.

In her talk, Ebadi referred to the milieu of sanctions — including a broad ban on dealings with Iran by American businesses — implemented by the U.S. against Iran for a host of grievances. These sanctions, she argued, have squeezed the Iranian economy — an assertion that has also been made by many experts and politicians.

Instead, the United States should focus on political sanctions, Ebadi suggested.

“We have to weaken the government of Iran but not harm the people of Iran,” she said.

For instance, she said, members of the Iranian government who are deemed culpable of human rights abuses should be placed on a “black list.” Banks who take the deposits of those individuals, she said, ought not to be allowed to do business in the U.S.

Another possible political sanction, she said, would be to bring back the ban preventing the Iranian government from broadcasting propaganda by way of American satellites. The ban was lifted when President Barack Obama spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last year, a gesture that many claim was meant to signify the cooling of tensions between the two countries.

While some in the audience of more than 200 members agreed with Ebadi’s assertion, others characterized it as untenable.

“The United States and other free nations are limited in how they can get their message across to Iran,” Medical School professor Larry Cohen said. “With a flick of a switch, you can have economic sanctions. Political sanctions are more difficult.”

History professor Abbas Amanat said that while economic sanctions are “terrible for the people,” the distinction between economic and political sanctions is often unclear.

Multiple times during her talk in the nearly-filled auditorium, Ebadi declared that the Iranian people desire friendship with the U.S.

“The people of Iran like your culture and civilization,” Ebadi said. “Long live the friendship between the people of Iran and the United States.”

The problem with Iran lies in its government, she said, notably in the power of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose control over the government is effectively absolute. Her criticism of the ayatollah was part of a broader critique of the religious grounding of Iran’s government.

Ebadi spoke little of her recent human rights work, instead focusing on the current state of affairs between the United States, Iran and the broader Islamic world. At one point, Ebadi turned her attention to the oppressive treatment of women in Iran, which she argued is antithetical to the Quran. She also spoke about censorship and Iran’s intervention in matters beyond its borders.

Ebadi was brought to Yale through the Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Global Justice, and she was introduced by University President Peter Salovey and Law School Dean Robert Post.

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