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Iran's Nobel winner doesn't make the news at home

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"Considering the indifference and frustration that hang over people, this Nobel Prize has appeared as a slim light of hope," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of law at the Supreme National Defense University. "But [Ebadi] is in a very delicate situation. People are looking to her, and she's trying to walk a tightrope."

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Analysts say the Nobel gives Ebadi a new degree of protection, but doesn't bestow power to bridge divisions in the reform camp, or a "golden key," as she says, to open cell doors for political prisoners.

Highlighting Ebadi's privileged but difficult position, the reform newspaper Yas-e-No ran a cartoon Thursday, showing a bright gold Nobel medal emerging as a flower from a tangle of thorns.

The fact that Ebadi has not been overtly political before adds to her clout today. "The conservatives are frightened by this phenomenon of Shirin Ebadi winning the Nobel," says Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, an editor who has seen seven of his reform newspapers closed, and now teaches at Tehran University.

"Why are they afraid? Because she has good influence with the secular elite, as well as Muslim reformists," says Mr. Jalaeipour. "In the midterm, she can protect the democratic trend in Iran."

Ebadi gets points for bravery for vowing to continue her legal quest for human rights, he adds, since hard-liners here consider such work "against God and anti-religious activity."

Indeed, death threats from vigilantes who consider Ebadi a "Western mercenary" - such as those who recently rushed the podium during a speech at a women's university, shouting "Death to Ebadi!" and forcing her to seek shelter among supporters - have prompted officials to provide a car, driver, and bodyguards.

But hard-liners are not Ebadi's only critics. Students have deplored her insistence - echoing the once-popular President Mohamed Khatami, who is widely criticized for wasting the mandate of two landslide election victories - that Islam and democracy are compatible, and that change should come from within. Students are also critical of Ebadi's call to vote in February parliamentary elections, while some angry reformers demand a boycott. "Ebadi has many experiences; most students on campus have little experience. They have high demands that they can't manage," says Jalaeipour. "When she goes abroad and takes off her head scarf, it's a revolutionary activity in the Iranian context. They don't understand that."

Still, some who witnessed Ebadi's return from a European visit at Tehran's airport, after the prize was announced in October, were not impressed. Those who greeted her were tearfully joyful but few. A phone text message had been widely circulated: "Shirin Ebadi. Tuesday night. Mehrabad airport. See you."

"Why did only a few thousand come? There should be so many, in a city of 10 million," says a reformist who was there. "It's embarrassing. The apathy is so thick."