By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said on Wednesday an Arab-style popular revolt would come soon to her country, driven by poverty and the fierce oppression of critics by its Islamic rulers.
But Ebadi, a defense lawyer for Iranian dissidents who has lived outside Iran since 2009 but has close family still there, said human rights campaigners wanted the transition to happen peacefully and avoid a Libyan-style bloodbath.
"With the slightest breeze, there could be a conflagration," she told a news conference on the fringes of a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, at which Western countries want an investigation into Iran to be set up.
"As to what will spark that fire and when, it is difficult to predict. But I can say with certainty that it won't be long in coming," she said.
Reports from Iran -- OPEC's second biggest oil producer after Saudi Arabia -- say the authorities have acted firmly to head off any repetition of the popular protests that have swept presidents from power in Tunisia and Egypt and pushed Libya close to outright civil war.
Security forces fired teargas in Tehran on Tuesday night to disperse anti-government protesters, and the two major reformist opposition leaders -- Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi -- have disappeared, according to their families.
The government denies they have been moved from their homes, but Ebadi -- who maintains close contact with rights activists inside the country -- said they and their wives had been deprived of all outside contact.
The lawyer, who has been traveling around the world to urge foreign governments to freeze assets of Iranian leaders and bar them from entry, said the economic situation in her country was dire. "People are getting poorer every day," she added.
WANTS TO AVOID BLOODBATH
She pointed to the protest movement in Tunisia, which began in January when a street merchant set himself on fire and snowballed into a revolt that sent shock waves across the Arab world.
"That is the sort of scenario that could be repeated in Iran," declared Ebadi, who was on a lecture tour in Europe when the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 led to widespread unrest across the country.
She said she was told by others in the human rights movement, many of whose leaders were arrested after the disturbances and jailed for long terms, to stay outside the country and promote the movement's cause at the United Nations.
"We are trying to ensure that whatever happens in Iran, it is without bloodshed. We don't want Iran to turn into another Libya. We don't want street fighting and civil war. We are doing our utmost to ensure that whatever happens is peaceful."
Ebadi, whose husband and sister have both been detained in Tehran and then freed after being barred from leaving the country, said she had been threatened with reprisals by the Iranian government if she did not stop her activities.
"But I am not going to stop," she added.
She said she was disappointed with European governments -- including those of Germany and Austria -- that maintained strong trade ties with Iran and were suggesting sanctions might be eased if Tehran made concessions over its nuclear program.
"Does that mean you forget about human rights if you get a nuclear agreement?" she asked. "My message to European governments is: do not help dictators."
(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Elizabeth Fullerton)