Does the Situation in Iran Call for a Second Nobel Peace Prize?

Since the last time an Iranian woman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the situation in Iran has only got worse. This does not mean that the previous award was a failure.

Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement of the winner for 2023 was an astonishing occurrence. Not because this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was unexpected or unique, quite the opposite: it is almost a carbon copy of the prize awarded exactly 20 years ago.

The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi in 2007. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl / Nur Photo via Getty Images

In 2003, it was Shirin Ebadi who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to advance women’s rights in Iran. This year, Narges Mohammadi has been awarded the prize on exactly the same grounds. These two Iranian women are even the leader and deputy leader of the same organization.

Many strange things have happened in the 122-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize, but never before have two prizes been awarded on such similar grounds. What does this tell us about developments in Iran? And about the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize?

The award of a Nobel Peace Prize can have various outcomes for the person, organization, or country that receives it.

It can help to protect the recipient. It can spur the international community to take action. It can exert pressure on an oppressive regime. It can give strength to an organization or movement.

When Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, she was a high-profile lawyer in Teheran. A few years later, she was forced into exile in London. Clearly, the prize did not succeed in protecting her from persecution.

Neither diplomatic progress (such as the Iran nuclear deal) nor international economic sanctions have succeeded in changing the Iranian regime’s treatment of its country’s inhabitants.

Over the past 20 years, the regime has become only more oppressive. While previously power alternated between conservative and moderate forces, now conservative forces seem definitively to have gained the upper hand.

We see the result in the regime’s response to the huge protests that have continued ever since Mahsa Amini was killed by the police in September last year: executions, mass arrests and torture. The situation of women has worsened significantly, particularly over the last couple of years.

These depressing developments might lead one to believe that the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize was wasted. In reality, the opposite may be true.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi legitimized demands for women to be treated with dignity, and may have motivated more people to dare openly to oppose the regime.

In 2009, thousands of people took to the streets in protest against electoral fraud, in what was known as the Green Movement. The late 2010s saw several waves of protests, as the result of soaring inflation and economic woes. And since September 2022, young Iranians in particular have taken to the streets under the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.

The protests have caused the authorities to crack down even more harshly. Pro-reform voices have been forced out. The country’s top leaders bear increasingly little resemblance to the people they govern. They have lost much of their legitimacy.

Accordingly, demands for regime change are becoming stronger. When Shirin Ebadi came to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize 2003, she still believed that change was possible from within the regime. But now that Narges Mohammadi is receiving the prize 20 years later, from a prison cell in Teheran, neither she nor Ebadi still believes this is possible. Now both women believe that bigger changes will be necessary.

Accordingly, the regime’s brutal response to the people’s demands for more freedom is a very high-risk strategy. The more oppressive the regime becomes, the less people will feel that they have anything to lose, which in turn will encourage opposition. Violence is now the sole means by which the regime can remain in power.

It is no coincidence that it is women who are at the forefront of the ongoing protest movement in Iran. Almost nowhere else in the world is there a starker disparity between women’s competence and their participation and influence.

Sixty percent of all university students in Iran are women. Despite this, only 15 percent of working age women are in employment.

Moreover, the average number of children born to each Iranian woman has fallen dramatically, from around five in 1990 to 1.7 today – the biggest decline in a country’s fertility rate ever seen anywhere in the world. Iranian women are now giving birth to as few children as women in the United States.

We know that higher levels of education are strongly associated with low birth rates. But the dramatic change in Iran may also be a partly a reaction from women to the society around them, and to a lack of confidence in the future.

Iran is at boiling point. While the regime is becoming ever more authoritarian, there are also ever more Iranians daring to oppose it, whatever the cost.

In this situation, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the woman seen by many as the leader of the protest movement can offer great encouragement. Encouragement to stronger collaboration, greater courage and increased resistance.

Superficially, the Iranian regime has succeeded in smothering most of the protests. But they have a large and growing section of the population against them. This increases the likelihood that the regime will fall at some point.

Before things get better, they will probably get worse. Nonetheless, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi in 2003 was an important catalyst for popular resistance to the authoritarian regime. This year’s award of the prize to Narges Mohammadi will most likely have the same effect.

And hopefully it will not to be necessary to award yet another Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian woman activist in 20 years’ time.

The authors

Henrik Urdal is the Director of PRIO, and provides regular comments on the Nobel Peace Prize, including publishing his Nobel Shortlist every year
Samira Amini Hajibashi is a Senior Researcher at PRIO

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