Iranian protests need symbolic act from Obama

A White House meeting with dissident Shirin Ebadi would send a signal of US support for protesters. The Islamic regime fears the ideals that Ms. Ebadi champions – even to the point of arresting her innocent sister.

President Obama should take note: Among the more than 1,500 arrests made during Iran’s recent and perhaps largest protests in three decades, the most telling one is that of the sister of Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights lawyer and the 2003 Nobel peace laureate. 

Noushin Ebadi, a university professor and not an active dissident, was arrested Monday merely for talking by phone with her famous and honored sister, who has been forced to live in self-exile in London.

Shirin Ebadi is the most well-known Iranian who has stood up for such ideals as freedom of speech, democracy, and human rights in Iran. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, her center on human rights in Tehran was shut down and her medal taken away. And now, strangely, the Islamic regime believes it can suppress the spread of those ideals by arresting her innocent sister.

Good ideas such as freedom of assembly and rule of law that have stood the test of history can’t be forever suppressed. As more Iranians embrace them in the face of rigged elections, widespread corruption, and violent crackdowns on dissent, the larger the demonstrations have become – and in more Iranian cities.

The latest protests marked the passing of cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once a prominent leader of the Islamic Republic and later a harsh critic. The mourning period for his death happened to fall on the major Shiite holiday known as Ashura, which helped turn the protests into a symbol of defiance toward supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many high-level dissidents and former regime leaders were arrested, while the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was killed – further fueling resentment toward the regime.

More protests are expected in coming days and weeks, driven by each arrest or killing that symbolizes the regime’s fear of the ideals of civil society. Mr. Khamenei, who claims he rules as God’s representative, has lost legitimacy because of his violent crackdown. His security forces should soon realize that and refuse to shoot protesters.

Ms. Ebadi contends that the West has a bigger stake in helping create a democratic Iran than in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A government in Tehran that is freely elected would have far less interest in threatening its neighbors.

Given the widening dissent in Iran, it may be time for President Obama to invite Ebadi to the White House for a high-profile visit. Such a public meeting would send a signal to Iranians that the United States stands for the same ideals that Ebadi has championed.

Mr. Obama has shown some reluctance to use such symbolic meetings with foreign dissidents, preferring to engage hostile governments rather than antagonize them. The president’s recent words of encouragement for the “universal ideas” that the Iranian protests represent are a welcomed sign of US support. 

But with the protests likely only to grow, it may be time for the US to openly side with Ebadi by inviting her to the West Wing.

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