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Is a Free and Democratic Iran a Pipe Dream?

As Iran-backed militias and weapons contribute to the violence in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Ukraine, we must remember the Iranian women who sacrifice their lives and liberties to change Iran. A free and democratic Iran—while seemingly far away—would diminish those conflicts and go a long way to achieving peace in the Middle East. A pipe dream? It might be. But women fight for that dream every day, willing to die or go to prison to achieve freedom.

On December 10, 2023, the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Narges Mohammadi will formally be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while the Iranian regime holds her in its infamous Evin prison. They are awarding her the prize for “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.”

Photo of Narges Mohammadi, Iranian human rights activist and Deputy Director of the Center for Human Rights Documentation. (Photo from the Center for Human Rights in Iran. (Source:  Bush Center piece by Ellen Bork here)

When the Nobel Committee awards the prize to Mohammadi, her chair might be empty, like it was at Lui Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel ceremony. Or her chair might be occupied by her husband, like when Ales Bialiatski’s 2022 prize was collected by his wife. We now know that her twins Ali and Kiana, 17, will attend and deliver her speech.

Twenty years ago, on the 55th anniversary of the UDHR, Mohammadi’s current boss, Shirin Ebadi, won the Nobel Peace Prize for “her efforts for democracy and human rights.” She was the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to be given the Peace Prize. At that time, the Nobel committee noted that democracy and human rights were “advanc[ing] in various parts of the world” and that “by its awards . . . the Norwegian Nobel Committee has attempted to speed up this process.”

Neither democracy nor human rights have advanced in Iran. The country has seen widespread protests over the last twenty years in support of democracy and reform. The most recent protests, in response to Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody, put the Iranian people’s discontent with their government on display. It brought together women of all classes, ages, and backgrounds to detest an authoritarian regime that denies them basic rights.

Women like Mohammadi and Ebadi will be the ones that move their society toward democracy and individual rights, giving the Iranian people more dignity, prosperity, and influence in global affairs. Their example, activism, and ideas move the needle for those seeking democracy in neighboring nations and beyond.

It is a reminder that the way to stop Iran from continuing to wreak havoc in the region is to support people like Mohammadi, Ebadi, and Lily Pourzand, whom the McCain Institute awarded its 2023 Courage and Leadership Award for and on behalf of all the women of Iran.

As Mohammadi’s husband said when she won the Peace Prize, “Even if you think you’d love for Narges to be free…real freedom means freedom for everyone…and Narges won’t feel free until others are free.” Freedom in Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Ukraine, and everywhere else, that is the dream. We must not forget the women of Iran.

Pipe dream or not, that is the dream.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Pedro Pizano, Assistant Director of Democracy Programs, McCain Institute
Publish Date
December 8, 2023