Appointed by President Hassan Rouhani as the new head of Iran’s Department of Environment (DOE), Isa Kalantari knew that this chronically mismanaged organization desperately needed new blood.
Facing myriad environmental challenges including growing water shortages, Kalantari, who previously served as minister of agriculture and whose policies had been harshly criticized, decided to reach out for help and to recruit a young “outsider” with impressive credentials.
Kaveh Madani, a 36-year-old Iranian scholar based at Imperial College in the United Kingdom, seemed like the perfect candidate. He had already won international recognition, including the Huber Engineering Research Prize “for groundbreaking research in developing methods for the allocation of scarce water resources merging conflict-resolution and game-theoretic concepts for application to complex water resources systems.”
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, a number of Western-educated professionals have assumed important government positions, including Iran’s current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
But as the system has aged and hostility with the West has persisted, paranoia has risen among some homegrown officials against those who spent formative parts of their lives outside Iran. The terms ‘insider’ (khodi) and ‘outsider’ (Gheir-e Khodi) reflect this mindset, which has led to talented outsiders being accused falsely of spying against the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani’s election in 2013 and re-election four years later brought hope to members of the diaspora born after 1979 that they could return and contribute to their homeland. Madani, who spent fourteen years outside Iran, took up the challenge to see if he could pave the way for others. He told the Tehran Times in December 2017, “We have had a lot of people coming back to work in industry and make money, so why not have people come back to help the country as we did some 38 years ago in 1979? So if the chance of success is minimal, the expected achievements still justify my decision.”
Madani’s seven-months tenure as deputy of the DOE for International Affairs, Innovation, and Socio-Cultural Engagement had a bumpy start. Upon his arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran, he was taken in for questioning by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). His laptop was confiscated and his email was hacked in pursuit of evidence that he was a spy.
The Rouhani government stood firm and succeeded in clearing the way for Madani to begin his work. He proved to be exactly the “new blood” that the department needed. His direct and open criticism of former policies in public speeches, innovative ways of creating a more collegial work environment, and creative approaches to engaging the public soon made him a very popular official.
Madani used modern tools such as social media to invite society to join him in efforts like a challenge to reduce waste. Many social activists and public figures, as well as government officials, welcomed his approach and joined him to raise awareness of other environmental challenges.
But in February 2018, social and political activists in Iran were shocked by the news of the passing of a well-known Iranian Canadian environmentalist and scholar, Kavous Seyed Emami, in Evin prison. Officials claimed Seyed Emami, accused of espionage, committed suicide. His family and friends disputed this claim and demanded an independent investigation, which has yet to occur.
Meanwhile, seven other environmentalists, members of a respected nongovernmental organization, the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation, were also detained and remain in prison. Madani himself was briefly detained. Due to heavy media attention during his short detention, Madani was forced by security forces to go live on Instagram, assuring his followers – though not very convincingly – that he was free and at work.
The arrests of environmentalists occurred in the context of widespread protests in Iran that were the largest since the 2009 “Green Movement.” The new protests were caused by a variety of hardships facing the population, including environmental challenges like water shortages, sand and dust storms, and other air pollution.
Although the 2018 protests were clearly indigenous, members of the security apparatus blamed “the West” and “enemies” of the state for igniting them.
The environmental protests were seen by the IRGC as a particular threat. After the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the military played a crucial role in rebuilding the country. Its construction brigades took control of projects, including building dozens of dams on rivers, which have subsequently contributed to water shortages. IRGC companies also had a privileged role during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), when Iran was under nuclear-related sanctions.
As a result, the Rouhani government inherited a malfunctioning and mismanaged system. Prior to joining the government, Madani was outspoken about what he anticipated as coming shortages, going so far as to predict “water bankruptcy” in a 2016 Al-Jazeera interview. Those shortages are now a reality and were a major factor in recent protests.
After joining the government, Madani didn’t change his tone. In an interview with Iran’s state television, he said if one wants to provide security for Iran, the government has to empower farmers and create jobs.
This directness didn’t go down well with the IRGC, which was uncomfortable having an “outsider” in such a sensitive position in the first place. Attacks on Madani in hardline media soon began. Private photos showed Madani dancing at a party and initial reports claimed they were taken during an official trip to Malaysia. Contrary to these accusations, the pictures were actually taken in 2013 and security forces acquired them by hacking his emails.
This scenario, familiar to many victims of Iran’s security apparatus, was a clear warning to Madani that his time in Iran was over and that the Rouhani government was no longer able to protect him. Hardliners went so far as to call him a “water terrorist,” blaming him for all of Iran’s current environmental shortcomings. Madani decided to resign from his post and leave Iran.
In his widely circulated resignation letter, he called himself an “outsider” whose goal was to “cure one of many illnesses which the environment is facing.” While acknowledging that his “civil rights” were violated, he said his relatives had also been put under pressure.
Madani wrote that he submitted his resignation with “a broken heart” but still hoped that his generation could contribute to Iran’s welfare. He said, “I swear, that as always, I still lovingly stand by the people of Iran and take steps to solve the serious problems of water and environment of the motherland.”
Noah Annan is a pseudonym for an Iranian journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.