n December someone claiming to be a producer for Manoto, a popular new Persian-language TV station, contacted me on Twitter. “My colleagues and I are soliciting feedback from media personalities and experts such as yourself to help improve our programming,” he wrote. Would I have a few minutes to complete a survey over Skype? Having recently appeared as a panelist on one of Manoto’s roundtable shows, I agreed.
I should have known better. Days earlier, Bloomberg reporter Kambiz Foroohar had exposed this “survey” as a fishing expedition on the part of Iranian intelligence. Someone using the same fake Twitter account had attempted to ensnare Foroohar and a slew of other Iranian writers working for major Western outlets. Foroohar had accepted the invitation, and posted a video of his Skype conversation to Facebook. The man on the other end didn’t seem to know a thing about London, where Manoto is based. When Foroohar pressed him about his location, the interviewer fell silent. Then he mumbled: “Wimbledon Stadium.” The imposter was almost certainly lurking somewhere in the bowels of Iran’s security apparatus, Foroohar concluded.
The scheme bore all the hallmarks of the Islamic Republic—deception, paranoia, and a fondness for secret confession. While they may appear hamfisted and absurd, these tactics have kept the regime in power for nearly four decades. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has solidified its rule to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a viable, broad-based opposition emerging in the foreseeable future.
That depressing thought animates the Iranian jurist Shirin Ebadi’s revealing new memoir, Until We Are Free. After the ayatollahs seized power in 1979, Ebadi was demoted to a clerk in the court over which she had presided as Iran’s first female judge under the Shah. Most would have escaped the country at that point. But Ebadi, who initially supported the revolution, resolved to stay and would go on to build a second career as a lawyer representing some of Iranian society’s most vulnerable groups: women, children, refugees, minorities, and dissidents.
Ebadi’s activism briefly landed her in prison in 2000. Three years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Although her bravery was never in doubt, Ebadi was not an unequivocal enemy of the regime. She stood squarely in Iran’s reformist camp. Throughout the 1990s, the reformist movement attempted to introduce pluralistic elements into the Iranian system without rocking the Khomeinist boat. “Islamic democracy” was the watchword, and some reformists went so far as to claim they were recovering Khomeinism’s tolerant essence. It was a delusion.
The United States had already invaded Iraq when she received the Nobel, and the Norwegian Committee was known to be against the war. At her lecture in Oslo, Ebadi delivered the ideological goods. “Why is it that in the past 35 years, dozens of UN resolutions concerning the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel have not been implemented promptly,” she asked. “Yet, in the past 12 years, the state and people of Iraq… were subjected to attack, military assault, economic sanctions, and, ultimately, military occupation.” Then Ebadi articulated the basic reformist idea. Islam, she said, “cannot be in conflict with awareness, knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression, and cultural pluralism.”
The Shiite Islamists who run Iran disagreed with her. In the years since her Nobel triumph, they have set out to destroy Ebadi—and have mostly succeeded. Until We Are Free is Ebadi’s account of the devastation. It is a revealing and dark work, notable for the author’s frank reassessment of some of her earlier positions.
The mullahs didn’t stop. They confiscated Ebadi’s Nobel medal, detained her sister, forced the Ebadis to sell most of their assets to pay an arbitrary tax on her Nobel cash award, and barred the septuagenarian Javad from traveling abroad to see his family.
It isn’t until more than halfway through that the story comes together, amid the drama of Iran’s rigged 2009 presidential election. Ebadi had traveled to Europe just before the Green uprising against the re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it soon became clear that she couldn’t return home as the regime’s crackdown intensified. Iranian security forces had already restricted her activities in various ways and even added her name to a list of dissidents marked for extrajudicial assassination. But she had, up until then, evaded the worst of their machinations.
In August 2009, Ebadi, then living in The Hague, received a call from her husband, Javad. He was despondent. A former lover had seduced him—and it was a setup. Once the two were naked in bed, regime agents poured into the room. They had been filming the whole scene. Finally the regime had something in hand that could diminish the Nobelist’s moral stature. Threatening Javad with execution, the Intelligence Ministry coerced him into denouncing Ebadi as a foreign agent (and a tyrannical wife). Few Iranians believe these Soviet-style forced confessions, but the humiliation they cause is deeply scarring.
The mullahs didn’t stop. They confiscated Ebadi’s Nobel medal, detained her sister, forced the Ebadis to sell most of their assets to pay an arbitrary tax on her Nobel cash award, and barred the septuagenarian Javad from traveling abroad to see his family. The implosion of the Ebadis’ loving marriage under regime pressure makes for the book’s most poignant, heartbreaking chapters. This is the stuff of Arthur Koestler novels and Krzysztof Kies´lowski films. Only, it’s real life in modern Iran. In 2013, the couple divorced. Ebadi lost her eyebrows from the trauma, and Javad was left a broken man.
These ordeals, some of which Ebadi is disclosing for the first time, have clearly forced her to reconsider. Unlike many of her reformist allies, for example, she puts little stock in President Hassan Rouhani’s “moderate” inclinations, noting how some of his cabinet appointees are notorious human-rights violators and how the “climate for women, especially, [is] deteriorating by the day, despite Rouhani’s election.” She still clings to some of the old misty nonsense, however, as when she claims that this or that barbarous Iranian law is a “distortion of true Islamic legal principles.” What I think Ebadi means is that her own humane version of the faith—the one practiced by millions of middle-class, urban Iranians who pray a little and booze a little—is preferable to Khomeinist doctrine. I agree, but she doesn’t marshal much evidence to suggest that the more humane version is also the more authentic one.
Ebadi has a point, though, when she says that liberal Muslims should learn the “subtleties of Sharia law, philosophy, and tradition,” since “well-trained and erudite students would be equipped to argue for fresher and more modern angles and approaches to Islamic laws.” It’s fine to embrace “cultural Islam,” or relate to the faith like Jack Mormons and lapsed Catholics, as many liberal Iranians do. But so long as Islamists can project textual authority, they will dominate an important front in the battleground of ideas.
There is also a refreshing honesty to how Ebadi sees her own work. Openness in Iran, she concedes, “rests largely on the political conditions of Iran, not on my abilities as a lawyer.” About those conditions, Ebadi is now largely pessimistic. Reflecting on the 2013 election that brought Rouhani to power, she notes: “Iranians’ demands for free, democratic elections had been so far reduced, their expectations so diminished, that they were gladdened by vote counting that was not fraudulent, in an election process that had vetted candidates so stringently that it could hardly be considered a competition.” On Iranian social media, the democratic consciousness of 2009 is fading away. Taking its place is an ugly Persian-Shiite chauvinism, mostly directed against Sunnis and Arabs.
Perhaps the Tiananmen effect really has set in, as the country’s most pessimistic observers argue—that is, the Tehran regime has, through a combination of bloody repression and co-optation, managed to permanently pacify its people, as the Chinese Communist Party did after the 1989 massacre in Beijing. As Ebadi points out, by underwriting Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in next-door Syria, the ayatollahs telegraphed to their own people that they would sooner set Iran on fire than give up power. That message has been received.
Then again, as my own recent brush with Iranian spooks shows, a regime that goes to such lengths to dig dirt on a TV network that runs beauty pageants and reruns of LipSync Battle can’t be feeling all that invulnerable.