Orwellian bureaucratic rules meant to impose sanctions on undemocratic or unfriendly regimes should not be used to silence democrats who oppose those regimes. Yet that is what the Bush administration has been doing in the case of Shirin Ebadi, the courageous Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her willingness to defend women, children, and human rights advocates who run afoul of Iran’s clerical dictatorship.
Ebadi stands for everything President Bush professes to support. She has risked her freedom and her life to defend democracy, free speech, and the rule of law. She leads a legal team representing the family of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist born in Iran who was beaten to death after being arrested in Tehran. She had been taking pictures of political prisoners’ relatives outside the infamous Evin prison, where their loved ones were being held and, all too often, tortured.
Nevertheless, because of regulations set by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Ebadi is being prevented from publishing her memoirs in the United States. The rules circumvent US federal laws prohibiting restrictions on the free flow of information. Under the Treasury Department regulations, Ebadi, as an Iranian author living in Iran, cannot publish a book in the United States that benefits from the help of American translators, editors, or publicists.
These restrictions are meant to specify how US trade sanctions against Iran—and Cuba—are to be applied. The rationale is to prevent trading with designated enemies.
But the Treasury Department rules forbidding substantive editing and artistic enhancement of Ebadi’s Farsi manuscript do something quite different. By interfering with freedom of expression, they thwart a badly needed dialogue between Americans and their natural friends and allies in Iran.
Ebadi is not alone among Iranian writers and intellectuals who wish to explain their predicament as devotees of democracy to an American audience. Indeed, as a Nobel laureate she could apply for a special license that would exempt her from Treasury’s Draconian regulations. But as a lawyer who defends free speech, Ebadi cannot accept an exemption from what she regards as prior restraint for others. So she and her literary agent are suing the Treasury Department.
As things stand, Treasury’s perverse regulations align the United States with Ebadi’s tormentors, mistaking friends for enemies. Bush should tell Treasury to change its rules and stop doing the mullahs’ work for them.
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