Ban on Iranian dissident exemplifies PR problem

December 13, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Ever wonder what happened to the State Department's chief of propaganda? The head of public diplomacy was supposed to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim street.

After all that fanfare, the PR seat has been empty lo these many months. Is it possible that no one wants to be chief flack for the gang that couldn't shoot straight?

Let's take the bungled case of Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. This Iranian dissident is being prevented from publishing her memoirs in the United States because of regulations that prohibit "trading with the enemy."

The enemy? If Iran is one point on the administration's "axis of evil," Ms. Ebadi is surely a counterpoint.

The first woman ever to become a judge in Iran, she was kicked off the bench when the ayatollahs took over and declared that women were too "emotional" for the judiciary. She was given a job as a clerk in the court she once presided over.

At great personal risk, this mother of two became a powerful force for human rights, especially women's and children's rights. She defended free speech and opposed child abuse. She has not only represented the family of a Canadian photojournalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison, she is also fighting a death penalty that applies to girls at 9 and boys at 15. For her work, the Stockholm committee dubbed her a Nobel laureate. The clerics in her homeland, however, prefer to call her "Islam's No. 1 enemy" and "the mare of the apocalypse."

By any sane measure, Ms. Ebadi ought to be a poster child for the values we hold dear. She is a leader in the struggle against an Islam hijacked by the intolerant wing. But instead of amplifying her voice, we've covered it with red duct tape.

A law written in 1917 allows the president to bar transactions during times of war or national emergency. It was amended twice to exempt publishers. Nevertheless, the Treasury Department, in its wisdom, has ruled that it's illegal to even enhance the value of anything created in Iran without permission. And anything includes books.

As Ms. Ebadi's would-be literary agent, Wendy Strothman, put it, "If you lift a pencil to help her shape her manuscript so American audiences can read it, you are subject to punishment." The price is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for an individual or $1 million for a publishing house.

Just how Byzantine are the bureaucratic rules? It is perfectly legal to reissue any book already on the shelves in Iran. You could publish, say, the unedited wisdom of the ayatollahs. It's also legal to publish the writing of an Iranian living in the United States.

The people specifically targeted are dissidents still living at home. "She can't publish in her own home," says Ms. Strothman. "For us to compound the silence is really shocking."

The Treasury Department says that all Ms. Ebadi has to do is apply for a special license. But no American needs a license to publish a book. Neither this free-speech lawyer nor her supporters are going to ask the government for permission.

Instead, Ms. Strothman and Ms. Ebadi have filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department. So have several others groups, led by the PEN American Center. They are challenging the regulations that effectively ban writers in Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, as well as Iran. Some are authors of such aid-the-enemy books as the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba.

As an international public relations fiasco, however, Ms. Ebadi's case is the most dramatic. Prohibiting her memoir because it might in some way aid Iran is exactly as if we'd prohibited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago because it might have helped the Soviet Union.

This remarkable woman has a story to tell. It's the story of an everyday working mother who studied her law briefs in a locked bathroom. It's the story of a brave and harassed human rights advocate in a theocracy. But this is a story that cannot be told in Iran and cannot be sold in America.

Last week, Congress finally passed a bill to overhaul our intelligence. Now maybe we can overhaul our common sense.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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