IRGC steps up crackdown on environmentalists amid anti-government protests

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jun 1, 2018
IRGC steps up crackdown on environmentalists amid anti-government protests

While Iran’s environmental challenges have reached crisis level, the country’s judicial and security authorities have stepped up crackdown on the very experts and activists who are leading efforts to address the country’s growing water scarcity and environmental problems, adversely affecting tens of millions of Iranians on a daily basis. In recent months, intelligence operatives of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have arrested scores of water management and environmental experts and activists on spurious charges. The IRGC, in collusion with the country’s repressive Judiciary, accuses those arrested of working for foreign intelligence agencies; but in reality, the IRGC targets these individuals because it considers them a threat to its environmentally-destructive construction projects. Reports in the Iranian media reveal that many water management experts, for example, have been arrested after questioning unscientific IRGC-built dam projects, which have exacerbated water scarcity and land degradation in different parts of the country. The mass arrests have also sparked a public clash between the Rouhani government and the Judiciary at a time when environmental issues have recently triggered anti-government protests across the country. Environmental activists' ability to mobilize the masses have also made them a prime target as Iranian regime continues to face popular unrest.  

Internal feud 

Last week, Isa Kalantari, head of Iran’s Department of Environment, said that a government investigation panel had concluded that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing against the environmental detainees and called for their immediate release. The four-man government team included the ministers of interior, justice and intelligence, as well as President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for legal affairs. 

But the Judiciary this week rejected Kalantari’s assertion, reiterating that the detainees will not be released. “Everyone must speak within his area of responsibility,” Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, the deputy head and spokesman of the Judiciary, told a press conference in Tehran. Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, Tehran Prosecutor General, also dismissed the findings of the government committee, adding that the executive branch does not have “the right to express a view on or interfere in” this case. Some conservative lawmakers also summoned Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi to parliament to explain how Kaveh Madani, deputy head of Department of Environment, has left the country without facing charges leveled against him. 

Spying allegations

Madani, an American-educated water management expert, left London’s Imperial College last year to return home and help tackle the country’s worsening environmental issues. Rouhani had asked the 36-year-old Madani to join his government in order to encourage other expatriates to return and slow down the country’s brain drain. 

But hardliners and IRGC-affiliated outlets immediately began a vicious campaign against him, accusing Madani of working with Western and regional intelligence agencies to collect sensitive information about Iran’s missile sites. Hardline Kayhan newspaper accused him of being dual national although he holds only Iranian citizenship. But media reports suggest that the real reason the IRGC and hardliners aggressively targeted him was that he had criticized Iran’s water management policies, including dams built by IRGC companies. 

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), a state-run agency that reflects the views of the Rouhani government, published a lengthy article criticizing the harassment of people working on environmental issues. It praised “the government’s late but candid defense of environmental detainees” and called on relevant authorities not to “securitize” environmental issues and instead join hands to address the country’s environmental problems – highlighting that water shortage, sandstorms and pollution have been among chief reasons behind latest anti-government protests. 

IRNA’s story began with the story of Kavous Seyed-Emami, a Canadian dual national who directed the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. IRGC intelligence agents arrested Seyed-Emami in January and he later died under mysterious circumstances in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. More than a dozen other former and current employees of the organization were also arrested. 

IRNA also provided short biographies of other environmental experts currently in Iranian jails, such as Tahir Ghadeeryan, a 2008 UNESCO award winner, and Nilofer Bayani, an expert who worked for the United Nations. The IRGC has not commented on the detentions but Dowlatabadi in February claimed the experts were working for American and Israeli intelligence agencies to gather information on Iran’s missile sites. Reformist publication Kalame reported in April that the environmentalists were arrested after they opposed IRGC plans to install missile sites on protected lands. 

Rouhani has yet to take a strong stand against the increasing harassment of environmentalists. He has not responded to a letter by 800 environmentalists who wrote to the president to inquire about the fate of the detainees. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has also been silent on the issue. 

Growing challenges

Iran’s mounting environmental challenges have reached crisis point. Water scarcity and air pollution, in particular, have caused sociopolitical and security problems inside the country, and have strained Iran’s relations with its neighbors.

In recent months, alarming levels of air pollution in Tehran and other major cities have forced schools to shut down, caused health hazards for the local population, and triggered a fierce political infighting in Iran.

The country’s water resources have depleted to historically low levels and pose serious threat to the country’s agriculture, public health, economy and security. About 97 percent of the country have recently suffered some levels of drought and 90 percent of the population live in areas of high water stress, which is twice the global average and among the worst in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Iran’s Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian warned that water scarcity has put “Iranian life, civilization and survival at risk.” According to Chitchian, more than 500 Iranian cities and towns are already faced with the shortage of drinking water. The Iranian media has reported violent clashes over water across the country. There have also been sporadic anti-government protests over water issues in Iran’s central provinces. According to Kalantari, water shortage is set to exacerbate, potentially forcing 50 million Iranians to migrate in the next 25 years. 

While Iranian leaders blame Iran’s neighbors and changes in climate for most of the country’s environmental ills, they largely ignore widespread corruption, mismanagement and wrong policies responsible for the worsening crisis across the country, particularly in underprivileged regions. 

The IRGC’s growing economic role has been the main culprit of Iran’s environmental and water problems. The IRGC has built hundreds of dams over the past three decades, changing the natural direction of water flow and favoring the elites at the expense of ordinary Iranians. And when experts try to alleviate the problems and question IRGC's disastrous policies, they often end up in jail. 

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