Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to Iranian women 20 years apart trace tensions with West

Awards serve as bookends to period in which Tehran and Washington have seesawed between confrontation and possible reconciliation

This photo taken in 2021 shows Narges Mohammadi in Tehran, Iran. Imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in recognition of her tireless campaigning for women's rights and democracy and against the death penalty. (Reihane Taravati via AP)
This photo taken in 2021 shows Narges Mohammadi in Tehran, Iran. Imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in recognition of her tireless campaigning for women's rights and democracy and against the death penalty. (Reihane Taravati via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to an Iranian women’s rights activist signaled international support for democracy efforts in the Islamic Republic, and hope that the country might change from the inside.

That was 20 years ago and the winner, Shirin Ebadi, faced harassment that ultimately forced her to flee the country.

On Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave its prestigious Peace Prize to Ebadi’s colleague, Narges Mohammadi, who has been in and out of prison for over a decade because of her activism supporting women’s rights and democracy.

The awards serve as bookends to a period in which Iran and the United States have seesawed between confrontation and possible reconciliation over restraining Tehran’s nuclear program, with tensions soaring ever since the collapse of a 2015 deal. Over those two decades, women’s rights have moved to the forefront of protests in Iran.

Iran’s economy has been in tatters for years because of sanctions imposed by the West, and people are angry over the devaluation of their money and government corruption. It’s a sharp contrast from 20 years ago, when there still seemed a chance of something resembling a détente with the US.


When Shirin Ebadi won her Nobel in 2003, the Iranian theocracy — governed from the top by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — faced an internal struggle.

On one side was Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist seeking to change the country’s government from within. Khatami long advocated for a “dialogue among civilizations” as he sought better relations with the world, particularly the United States.

Prominent Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi in a meeting on women’s rights in Tehran, Iran, on July 3, 2008. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

After the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, Iranians spontaneously demonstrated in support of America, and Khatami’s government signaled that it would help any downed US pilots as they targeted the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Standing in Khatami’s way were hard-line politicians and security force members who weakened his authority within Iran’s government. The country’s internal security agency cracked down on mass student protests that erupted in 1999.

Any efforts at compromise with the US were further complicated when President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” along with North Korea and Iraq, which the US had invaded in 2003.

Khatami left office in 2005 due to term limits, and he was replaced by a very different leader.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became a caricature of Western perceptions of the Islamic Republic’s worst attributes.

He questioned the Holocaust, insisted Iran had no gay or lesbian citizens, and hinted the country could build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s nuclear program began inching toward weapons-grade levels of uranium enrichment, worrying the West. A series of targeted killings against Iran’s nuclear scientists were widely suspected of being carried out by Israel, its regional archrival.

The US and Israel were suspected of jointly launching a cyberattack known as Stuxnet that damaged Iran’s all-important enrichment centrifuges.

Iran’s domestically built centrifuges are displayed in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, February 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Just a few years since winning the Nobel Prize for her activism, Ebadi faced increasing harassment. She wouldn’t remain in Iran much longer.

After Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009, his security forces violently put an end to the so-called Green Movement protests. Ebadi, who later settled in the United Kingdom, supported the demonstrators from afar.

Eager to quash Ebadi’s influence, authorities raided her offices, seized her papers and golden Nobel medal, and froze her finances. She has remained abroad since.

Iran later released her medal after an international outcry.


To replace Ahmadinejad, who left office in 2013, Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate figure within the theocracy.

With the approval of the country’s spiritual leader, Rouhani’s officials began secret talks with their counterparts in the administration of President Barack Obama.

That helped birth the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, in which Iran agreed to drastically reduce its stockpile of uranium and greatly reduce its enrichment. In exchange, economic sanctions were lifted and Iranians rushed to the streets to celebrate.

The theocracy still maintained firm limits on the right to protest and on free speech. During this time — more than a decade before she would be awarded the Peace Prize — Mohammadi had been serving a series of prison sentences over her activism.

Narges Mohammadi’s husband Taghi Rahmani and their son Ali attend a press conference, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in Paris. (AP/Thibault Camus)

In 2018, the nuclear deal collapsed after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. Iran complied with its terms for about year, then a series of attacks at sea attributed to Tehran started in 2019.

Tensions grew and the specter of war followed the 2020 US drone strike that killed the prominent Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran responded with a ballistic missile attack that injured dozens of American troops in Iraq.

Iran is now closer than ever to enriching uranium at weapons-grade levels, and it has enough uranium for several bombs if they decided to build them, experts say.


Mohammadi remains behind bars after attending a 2021 memorial for a person killed in nationwide protests sparked by an increase in gasoline prices.

Iran’s economy groans under international sanctions, and the devaluation of its rial currency has made people’s savings worth increasingly little. As public protests have become more frequent, security force crackdowns have become more violent.

The demonstrations have remained largely leaderless, in part due to activists like Mohammadi facing imprisonment, harassment and potentially death. Khamenei and others in the theocracy say, without offering evidence, that the protests are a Western-orchestrated plot — a notion that is likely to resurface in the wake of Mohammadi’s recognition by the Nobel committee.

Women protest the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini, in Tehran, Oct. 1, 2022 (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

Women’s rights have been at the forefront of the last round of protests, which were sparked by the September 2022 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police over allegedly not wearing her hijab to an official’s liking. Iran and neighboring Afghanistan remain the only countries that mandate women wear a headscarf as a sign of piety.

Despite a growing government crackdown, some women in Tehran now refuse to wear the hijab at all. The mysterious injury of a 16-year-old girl without a hijab on the Tehran Metro this week now threatens to spark further anger.

As Mohammadi reportedly said in response to her win: “I also hope this recognition makes Iranians protesting for change stronger and more organized. Victory is near.”
Time will tell.

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