The West has targeted Iran with a series of international sanctions because of its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program. In the latest phase of sanctions this summer, the European Union stopped importing Iranian oil (the country's main source of revenue). It is difficult to gauge how much of the economic malaise can be attributed to the sanctions, and how much to government mismanagement, which is rampant. The rial dropped by 17 percent earlier this month after the government mysteriously stopped the flow of foreign currency to importers -- even though the government still has over $100 billion in its reserves.
To Ebadi, it seems as though the Iranian authorities are intentionally trying to provoke a war by making inflammatory remarks. Last month, President Ahmadinejad, who has earned a reputation for his harsh anti-Israeli statements, called for the creation of a new Middle East freed from any trace of Americans or Zionists. (He previously caused an outrage by saying that "Israel must be wiped off the map," a line first used by Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s.) Earlier this year Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei described Israel as a regional "cancerous tumor" that "should be cut off, while Ahmadinejad went on to call the existence of Israel an "insult against humanity. "The remarks seemed even more provocative ahead of a trip to Iran by United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
"It appears that they want to say that ‘we are not afraid of a war, and in fact we welcome it,'" said Ebadi. "Iranian society is moving along a democratic and secular path -- and a war can reverse it. I have no doubt that the people will eventually prevail, but a military crisis will upend the calculus."
Iran is gearing up for a presidential election next June, the first since the 2009 vote that sparked mass protests against alleged electoral fraud. President Ahmadinejad will not be allowed to run after serving two consecutive terms. In addition, his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei have grown sour after he sacked the foreign and intelligence ministers -- two key figures handpicked by Khamenei.
That means that the only competitors for the post will come from the hard-line camp loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, while opposition leaders and reformist politicians remain behind bars. Ahmadinejad hinted in a televised address last month that he may remain in the race, raising speculations that perhaps one of his close allies will try to run. But it is not clear how Ayatollah Khamenei would react to an overt challenge of this kind.
Genuine political change is not likely to come from these tightly controlled elections, according to Ebadi. "We don't have free elections where people can vote for any candidate," she says, noting that the Guardian Council, a clerical watchdog body, is responsible for screening the candidates and barring anyone who might pose a threat. "We had a democratically elected president and parliament at one point, but their hands were tied." This refers to the eight years when Ayatollah Khatami, the reformist president who had promised to grant more political and social liberties, held the presidency and his allies dominated parliament. Khamenei, who chooses the head of the judiciary, worked hand-in-hand with the Guardian Council to block their efforts. Many of those parliamentarians have landed in prison or in exile.