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Right Message in the Prize

October 11, 2003

The Nobel Peace Prize committee got things just right Friday, honoring an Iranian human rights campaigner. The committee said it hoped to inspire everyone struggling for human rights and democracy not just in Iran but "in the Muslim world" and lands beyond.

Shirin Ebadi was the first woman judge in Iran, but the clerics who came to power when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah in 1979 forced her to resign. In her subsequent law practice she courageously fought for more rights for women and children and defended political dissidents. The hard-liners fighting to retain control in Iran jailed her briefly three years ago, but she has continued to speak out.

Ebadi's prize should encourage reformers and supporters of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in their struggle to loosen the grip of fundamentalist clerics. Statements like the peace prize committee's bring cheer to the moderates without demonizing opponents. Lumping a government into an "axis of evil" forces reformers into the camp of their foes, lest they be considered traitors.

The Bush administration is right to campaign against possible Iranian nuclear weapons, but it also should engage Tehran and quietly support reformers' attempts to gain more power. Washington's request for Iranian help in rebuilding Iraq is a smart move in that direction. Iran has offered to provide water and electricity to Iraq and will take part in an international donors' conference this month in Madrid.

Nikki R. Keddie, UCLA professor emerita of history, writes in the newest edition of her book "Modern Iran" that since the 1980s Iran's foreign policy "has become increasingly pragmatic," but since 2001 Washington's foreign policy has become "increasingly ideological" and threatening toward Iranian leaders. That should change.

The United States should find many ways to salute Ebadi and colleagues who believe Islam is compatible with democracy, an especially important message after Sept. 11, 2001. The Nobel committee has given her cause a worldwide boost, and Ebadi graciously urged Iranian clerics to understand the need for Muslims to have the same human rights as those enjoyed by believers of different faiths. Other Muslim countries also need to hear that message.

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