With her legs barely reaching the floor from atop a sofa, Shirin Ebadi doesn't look much like a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime.

But when the 63-year-old human rights defender begins to speak, her sharp mind and no-nonsense demeanor help explain why she's become persona non grata in her native land.

"At this time I can be more useful outside Iran. I would have much preferred to be in my own country, but even when I'm outside of Iran, I work for Iran," said Ebadi, speaking through a translator during a recent visit to New York to promote her new memoir. "I'm not here to have fun."

Ebadi says the punishment now in Iran for people working for her is five years in prison. In the year leading up to her departure, her secretaries received constant death threats.

In 2003, Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Six years later, she took a trip to Spain on the eve of the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and chose not to return after the disputed results touched off waves of anti-government protests.

"In three days, the world changed," she explained.

Now, she lives in Atlanta, where she works at documenting Iranian human rights abuses from afar and reporting them to the United Nations.

She's also written a new book, "The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny," which went on sale April 30.

The memoir tells the life stories of three brothers she knew through their sister, a childhood friend: one grows up to become a general in the Shah's army, another a high ranking official in Iran's communist party and the third a devotee of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Their wildly divergent paths follow the three main ideological currents in Iranian politics today and serve to fill the reader in on the country's recent history. By the end of the book, all three brothers become disillusioned and come to bad ends.

There is also the sister who advocates secular democracy and comes to understand that path can only lead to prison in today's Iran. So, she, like Ebadi, chose to live in exile.

Ebadi begins the book with a quote: "If you can't eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it."

The book's publisher, Kenneth Kales, says he believes the book has a universal appeal.

"She is a remarkable and inspiring figure for women and children around the world. I was very motivated because she's a moderate voice from the Islam community and of course she pursues nonviolence and democracy," Kales said.

In her book, Ebadi briefly describes her own ordeal as a political prisoner, kept in total isolation, only allowed to wash once a week and then made to scrub her cell floor immediately after, leaving her filthy again.

"The Golden Cage," is essentially a story of prisons: the real, scary ones where Iran's thousands of political prisoners are detained; and the mental prisons that the characters in the book create for themselves with their rigid ideologies.

From there, it's hardly a stretch to see the whole country turning into a prison _ albeit a gilded one for the ruling theocracy.

That point was driven home in February with the reported detention of opposition presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, just as the so-called Arab Spring held up the promise of democracy with protests across the Middle East.

Even so, Ebadi claims not to be discouraged.

She compares the democracy movement in Iran to a "fire under the ashes," glowing embers that can re-ignite at any time.