Why is Iran’s Regime Turning Environmentalists Into Political Prisoners?

UPDATE 1330 GMT: Academics from Iran’s leading associations in political science, sociology, peace studies, and cultural studies have written President Hassan Rouhani:

The news of the death of Dr Kavous Seyed Emami has astounded and shocked the scientific community and the environmental activists of the country.

In addition to being a well-known professor, a distinguished scientist and war veteran…he was a noble and ethical human being. The news and rumours related to his arrest and death are not believable….

Our minimum expectation is that you take immediate and effective action to seriously investigate the case … and make the institutions involved in this painful loss accountable.

Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei stepped back from earlier regime assertion that Seyed Emami hung himself in detention: “I have heard he committed suicide, but I have so far no information on the details. This recent incident is under investigation.”

UPDATE 1045 GMT: Reports are circulating that Dr Kaveh Madani, the senior official in the Environment Ministry, has been released after a day in detention.

Observers initially pointed to a message this morning on Madani’s Twitter account — although that account has now been suspended.

Now the Environment Department’s website has posted a photo claiming to show Madani in a meeting today between the German Ambassador and Department head Isa Kalantari.

The Iranian regime’s crackdown on environmental researchers, scholars, and activists continued on Sunday with the arrest of a leading official in the Environment Department, Kaveh Madani (pictured).

Madani was an associate professor at Imperial College of London before returning to Iran in September as the Department’s deputy chief for international affairs and innovation. In December, he was celebrated by semi-official Iranian media for being named one of Europe’s four top scientists in 2016 by the European Union for Geo-Sciences.

The roundup of environmentalists began on January 24 with the detention of Dr. Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian dual national who is professor of sociology at Tehran’s Imam Sadeq University and the managing director of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation.

On Friday, Seyed-Emami’s family was notified that he had died in custody in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Iranian officials said he had committed suicide by hanging, the same story they circulated after the deaths of two detainees in early January amid nationwide protests.

See Iranian-Canadian Academic Dies in Tehran Prison Under Interrogation

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi declared that the scholar “had made some confession and knew that others have also made confessions against him, so unfortunately he committed suicide in jail”.

The following day, Doulatabadi said other environmental activists had been seized: “These individuals were gathering classified information in strategic fields under the guise of scientific and environmental projects.”

According to relatives, at least nine other staff members and executives of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation are being held. One, Morad Tahbaz, is an Iranian-American dual national; another is Niloufar Bayani, an advisor to the UN Environmental Program in Geneva for five years.

The detainees have had no phone contact with families or access to lawyers. “We really don’t know what they are accused of,” said a relative.

Gholamhossein Esmaili, the head of Tehran Province’s Justice Administration Chief, also said on Saturday that “a number of individuals who collected intelligence to hand over to foreigners have been arrested.” He added, “More arrests might be underway.”

A Death in Custody

Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeqi, who first revealed the death in custody of Kavous Seyed-Emami, said he has asked Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi for information, but has not had a convincing response.

Sadeqi, quoting a deputy intelligence minister, said Seyed-Emami was not arrested by the Intelligence Ministry and another intelligence organization must be involved. The MP said he would raise the case in Parliament on Monday.

An Iranian university lecturer said Seyed-Emami had been summoned to intelligence organizations several times, following a visit to Canada, before he was arrested.

Iran is beset by a series of serious environmental issues, including drought and the drying-up of lakes and rivers; deforestation; and health-threatening pollution in Tehran.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.


  1. Two views on commemorating the anniversary of the revolution http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-iran-revolution-20180211-story.html

    “The recent protesters were childish and simple; they have no idea what it was like before the revolution,” .

    “In the 1970s we kicked America out from Iran; now we will kick America out of the region. When I was a kid, I was very poor. Now I have a decent life,” he said. “Why should I be unhappy? Those who protested, they have economic problems but some thugs are misusing their anger to subvert the system.”

    • And this view, from the same article:

      *One man sipping a free cup of tea sat brooding on one main road where demonstrators had gathered. Giving his name only as Ali, he said he was unemployed and disenchanted with the ruling system. He had planned to come to the rallies to sell belts, but couldn’t afford to purchase the inventory from a wholesaler.

      “The revolution can’t do anything for me,” he said.*

      • It’s a sad story, but revolutions are not supposed to provide money to buy stock. That said, the Rouhani administration has hurt wannabe enterpreneurs by cutting the subsidy allowance.

    • No evidence of any involvement by environmentalists in illegal activities, let alone your implication of “spies in the nuclear program”.

      • You haven’t seen any of the evidence, so you can’t say that it doesn’t exist. Aside from the obvious spy case of Shahram Amiri, whom authorities in Iran tried their best to claim had been “kidnapped” by the Americans, when he had really tried to defect, we also know of efforts made by the CIA and FBI to recruit other Iranian scientists and academics to spy for them: https://theintercept.com/2018/02/05/ahmad-sheikhzadeh-spy-iran-nuclear-program-fbi/

        “The FBI asked Dr. Sheikhzadeh to cooperate with the government and to spy on his employer even though the charges against him did not include anyone else employed at the Mission, according to court documents. When Dr. Sheikhzadeh refused, he was charged with falsifying his tax returns, followed by other, more serious accusations, including money laundering and conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.”

        And for anyone who doubts that the CIA recruits academics at universities, think again: The science of spying: how the CIA secretly recruits academics: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/10/the-science-of-spying-how-the-cia-secretly-recruits-academics

        “In perhaps its most audacious and elaborate incursion into academia, the CIA has secretly spent millions of dollars staging scientific conferences around the world. Its purpose was to lure Iranian nuclear scientists out of their homeland and into an accessible setting, where its intelligence officers could approach them individually and press them to defect.”

        I don’t know if the accusations against the late Seyed Emami were true or not. However, I do see them as entirely possible. However, as a detainee, he should not have been harmed or been allowed to harm himself. Prison authorities are responsible for the protection of those held in their custody.

        • Brilliant. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Where have I heard that before?

          The rest of your post is twaddle. The Amiri case has no relevance, and your “well, it happened with an academic once long ago so it must have happened here” is either 1) naive or 2) a cynical, deplorable attempt to justify taking as many political prisoners as the Revolutionary Guards desire.

  2. Just curious, Dr. Lucas. If you deny that the likes of the CIA and USAID is involved in any kind of information gathering operations in Iran involving Iranian scientists, journalists, officials and academics, then how are they actually doing their job in intelligence? Are they relying solely on satellite photos and communications intercepts and simply refusing to use human sources? Also, why does the NED openly state on its website that it is funding individuals and NGOs inside Iran that “promote civil society and democracy”?

    Genuine question.

    • Stay on point: there is no evidence of any CIA/USAID involvement with the environmentalists who have been detained.

      On the terms of your attempted diversion, every Iranian — including the Supreme Leader, since the CIA worked with Iran’s clerics in the 1950s — should be detained.

      • I never stated that the accusations against Seyed-Emami are true, or that he committed suicide, or that I had seen any of the evidence that backed them up. I just claimed that that there are espionage networks within Iran, and that it is *possible* he could have passed on environmental information to someone linked with the CIA or some other intelligence agency, perhaps unaware of their connection. And I don’t expect the authorities to release any sensitive evidence, except perhaps at an inquiry. They may leak some to the media, though. I do, however, think his death in custody (suicide or not) should be probed as the authorities are responsible for the protection of all detainees they have arrested.

        • I hope that one day you’ll appreciate that *possible* — in your world or in that of anyone else — does not constitute evidence, due process of law, or just cause for imprisonment, at least in any system that observes the rights of its people.

          And maybe one day you’ll appreciate that those who declare the *possible* to justify detention (whether or not they give support for abuse of detainees) are accomplices to that denial of rights.

          • To arrest someone, all you need to do is to charge them after so long in detention. The evidence for their possible guilt is only presented later on in a court of law. What I am not doing, as you appear to be, is ruling out any possible illegal activities before all of the information on the case is made available.

            • That’s not the way the legal process works — at least in a just system based on rights, rather than on one using political prisoners for leverage.

              I think we can close this down now.

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