When Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, President Bush congratulated the Iranian lawyer and children’s advocate for “her lifetime championing human rights and democracy.”

When Ms. Ebadi sought to publish her memoirs in the U.S., she was startled to discover that doing so would be illegal, under a trade embargo intended to punish repressive governments such as the regime in Tehran that once sent her to jail.

Last week, Ms. Ebadi and her American literary agency, the Strothman Agency of Boston, sued the Treasury Department, which enforces the sanctions, in Manhattan federal district court. The suit says the regulations ignore congressional directives to exempt information and creative works from the trade sanctions, and more broadly violate the First Amendment rights of Americans to read what they wish. The restrictions “seem to defy the values the United States promotes throughout the world, which always include free expression and the free exchange of ideas,” Ms. Ebadi says in an affidavit filed with the suit.

Although the regulations allow the government to grant exceptions to the embargo, Ms. Ebadi hasn’t applied for one. The suit contends the rules for exceptions are too vague and that in any case it is unconstitutional to let the government decide whether an author may publish in the U.S.

The Treasury Department declined to comment on Ms. Ebadi’s suit, but spokeswoman Molly Millerwise defended the regulations as “part of the different strategies that make up our national security policies.” The U.S. has 29 sanctions programs in place against various countries, terrorist groups and others considered national-security threats, although the restrictions challenged by Ms. Ebadi apply only to Cuba, Iran and Sudan. Ironically, the way the Treasury Department interprets the trade embargo, Ms. Ebadi would have been free to publish a translation of her book in the U.S. had it originally been issued in Iran. The regulations allow publishers to “reproduce, translate, style and copy-edit” existing works from sanctioned countries, according to a department fact sheet. But they prohibit providing “services” to people or entities in embargoed countries, such as the type of editorial, marketing and translation work needed to publish an original book in the U.S. In a March letter to the Treasury Department, Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat who wrote legislation excepting information from the embargo, called the policy “patently absurd.”
Ms. Ebadi, 57 years old, says in her affidavit that she wants to write specifically for an American audience, offering them “a greater understanding of Iranian society and of the determination of one woman to seek justice in a society in which it is difficult for women to achieve influence in public affairs.”

“I would not write such a book for publication in Iran right now,” she says. “I want it to express my own ideas, not ideas that receive official approval.” She adds that although she speaks some English, she lacks the fluency to write a book in the language and would need assistance in translating from her native Farsi. “A book written for American readers would be very different from a book written for publication in my own country,” she says, “and my writing may have to be reconstructed, both to answer questions Americans would expect to be addressed and to sound comfortable to American ears.”

Such an endeavor would require close collaboration with an agent, editor and perhaps a co-writer in the U.S.—services her attorneys advise are prohibited without a government license.

The lawsuit is the second during recent months to target the regulations. In September, the American Association of University Presses, of New York, and other organizations filed in Manhattan federal court, claiming that publishers had been forced to suspend several projects because their authors were nationals of embargoed countries.
Many of the works impeded by the regulations involve Cuban authors. According to the university press association, suspended or cancelled publications include a book on Cuban archaeology to be published by the University of Alabama Press, a Cornell University Press edition of “Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba” and an “Encyclopedia of Cuban Music” from Temple University Press. “The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature” also is threatened, says the PEN American Center, a writers group currently headed by Salman Rushdie, the novelist who was condemned for blasphemy by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The PEN center is among the plaintiffs in the September suit, which is expected to be heard along with the Ebadi case by District Judge Richard Casey.
Although the trade embargoes trace their origin to World War I’s Trading with the Enemy Act and the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the current disputes arise from recent rulings by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers the sanctions. In September 2003, responding to a scholarly society’s query about publishing an article by an Iranian author, the office said that various tasks involved in publishing an original book in the U.S., such as “marketing, distribution, artistic, advertising and other services [are] not exempt” from the embargo. That raised concerns among publishers who potentially faced imprisonment and fines for violating the sanctions, and led to the recent lawsuits.

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