Environmentalists Are Latest Targets for Arrest in Iran, Seen as Spies

The increasingly bitter feud between Iran’s president and hard-line commanders and clerics exploded into the open over the weekend with the arrest of a top environmental official and the prison death of a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmental activist who was arrested last month, The New York Times reports.

The official, Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of the Department of the Environment, was arrested on Saturday, interrogated, and apparently released on Monday by intelligence agents affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. His department posted an image of him on Twitter during a meeting on Monday with the German ambassador to Iran, Michael Klor-Berchtold.

The arrest of Madani, an American-educated academic on leave from London’s Imperial College, was particularly embarrassing for President Hassan Rouhani, who had recruited him as a sign the country is ready to welcome back expatriate Iranians. It was consistent with a series of actions taken by hard-line groups in recent months to publicly humiliate and undermine Rouhani, analysts say.

“I have never seen the fight between these two factions so open here in Iran, the government versus those who are nonelected. I’m afraid that if solutions are not found, we might see escalation and even clashes in the near future,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an analyst with close ties to the Rouhani government.

With the arrests of Madani and several environmental activists including Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Iranian-Canadian, the fight seems to have expanded into the environmental arena as the government confronts growing fears of water shortages this summer. The environmentalist, who was arrested January 24, appeared to have been caught up in an ongoing crackdown by hardline forces against Iranians who hold dual citizenship in Western countries.

Several other people with ties to the foundation were also arrested, according to reports in Iranian media. Among them were Hooman Jokar, vice chairman of the board and head of the cheetah desk at Iran’s Department of the Environment, and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian American businessman and board member. The activists, some critical of the government for long-term mismanagement of water supplies, have been accused by the IRGC of spying.

The head of Tehran’s justice department, Gholamhossain Esmaeeli, said the activists were jailed “for transferring intelligence to foreigners, and it is likely that more activists will be arrested,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

The foundation’s roster of leaders with ties to Western countries has made it a target of hardliners in Iran’s judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the powerful paramilitary organization that has spearheaded the arrests of several other Iranian dual nationals on vague spying charges. The most recent arrests also suggested that environmental issues — a spark for the recent protests — were becoming increasingly politically sensitive in Iran.

Critics say the Revolutionary Guard and affiliated companies have exacerbated the impact of a prolonged drought by mismanaging water resources and building excessive dams.

“People who work on these issues and provide policy direction may be getting entrenched political and economic interests angry. But we don’t know whether these prisoners were detained because of their work, because we know nothing of the charges against them,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran’s executive director Hadi Ghaemi said.

The mother of Sam Rajabi, who was arrested in a state-led crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Iran, said her son has been focused on his career and would never betray his country.

“My son was not a spy. He had the opportunity to live abroad but he preferred to stay and serve his own country. My son is instinctively honorable. He’s not a spy,” Rajabi’s mother, Lili Houshmand Afshar, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on February 11, 2018.

Rajabi is one of several current and former staff members at the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation (PHWF) who were arrested on January 24 and 25, 2018. Rajabi’s mother told CHRI that the authorities have not allowed her to contact her son.

“I have absolutely no news about my son situation. He has not made any contact since he was detained. I went to Evin Prison twice. First, the authorities didn’t tell me anything convincing. They said, if your son does a bad thing, wouldn’t you punish him? I said, I wouldn’t punish him; I’d talk to him. The second time I went there they wouldn’t let me in. They said they would contact me,” she said.

Rajabi’s late father, Parviz Rajabi (1939-2010), was a prominent scholar of Iranian history.

“Sam stopped working for PHWF three and a half years ago. For two years he worked for an international Japanese company on environmental projects, the most important of which was the Anzali Lagoon [in northern Iran]. When his contract ran out, he was doing some translations for a short while until he could find a more permanent job. Agents came to our house at 10 at night on January 24 and took Sam away at 5 in the morning along with some papers and books, including articles he and his father had written. The agents didn’t tell us which agency they were from,” Rajabi’s mother said.

Hossein Vahabzadeh, the founder of the Kavi Kong, which runs nature appreciation classes for children in Iran, called on the current head of Iran’s Department of Environment (DOE), Isa Kalantari, to act quickly to prevent further harm to the department and the detainees.

“Mr. Kalantari, since when is information about the Persian cheetah classified?  These detainees are some of the best and brightest children of this land who were concerned with nothing but plants and animals. Amir-Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jowkar were constantly running around mountains and fields to try to protect the disjointed natural lands of the country. They don’t deserve the accusations against them. Do something before it’s too late, before we hear more terrible news like that of dear Dr. Seyed-Emami’s death,” Vahabzadeh wrote on his Facebook page on February 11.