In early 2018, nine environmental experts and activists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) were arrested in Iran. Disregarding their international reputation for tireless efforts to protect Iran’s endangered Asiatic cheetahs, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) accused them of being agents of the CIA, Mossad and MI6. The IRGC, which acts as an alternative, hardline centre of power in Iran, claimed that PWHF was using environmental activism as a cover for a mission to disrupt national security. It accused them of collecting “sensitive” environmental information and using camera traps to monitor Iran’s ballistic missile programme.

A few weeks later, one of them, Kavous Seyed Emami, died suspiciously in an alleged suicide at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. His grieving wife, Maryam Mombeini, is still banned from leaving the country to join her two sons in Canada. The rest of the group are still in “temporary detention”. Four of them have been charged with “spreading corruption on the earth”, a crime that can carry the death penalty. The rest face serious security charges for “cooperation with hostile governments” and “acts against national security”. Their 300-page indictment was finally disclosed to them in a trial behind closed doors that began a few weeks ago.

While the country’s civilian ministry of intelligence has stated it believes the activists are innocent, the IRGC is determined to trumpet the discovery of another spy network. This heartrending story is yet more evidence of what I know from personal experience to be a trend: a move by security forces to start policing the environmental sector in Iran.

I was a tenured faculty at Imperial College in 2017 when, at the government’s invitation, I returned to Iran after 14 years to serve as the deputy head of the country’s department of environment. Upon arrival in Tehran, however, I was arrested by IRGC. Their members broke into my phone, computer, emails, and social media accounts. I was then released and started to work for the government while trying not to lose my enthusiasm in the face of the Guards’ continuous disrespectful and illegal behaviour. They viewed me as a western infiltrator.

I wanted to be an agent of positive environmental change, but in return for my love for and commitment to the country, I was named a “bioterrorist”, a “water terrorist”, and a spy for Mossad, CIA and MI6. The accusations were mind-blowing, more reminiscent of James Bond movies than reality. I was accused of manipulating the weather to create droughts, trying to ratify the Paris agreement to limit development, shutting down agriculture to make the country dependent on others for its food, causing migration and tension in the country, and importing genetically modified organisms to eliminate my fellow Iranians.

I ended up resigning after seven months of increasing pressure that involved detentions and interrogations. My wife and I spent some time in hiding outside Iran before I decided to return to academia. But the IRGC-sponsored smear campaigns are still going on. Last week, hardline media promoted conspiracy theories about my connection to Republican Zionist groups in the US and Israeli intelligence organisations, and even Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent televised message on Iran’s water crisis.

Environmental problems recognise no borders and have the power to unite people regardless of their beliefs, cultures, ethnicities, and socio-economic status. Precisely this power, however, makes the environmental sector vulnerable to the attention of authoritarian elements. For years it was a safe space for activism in Iran, but the combination of general environmental awareness and increasing public anger at the government for a range of grave environmental problems has convinced some that this space is now a threat to national security.

The loss of hope is destructive for any environmental movement. Faced with this kind of persecution, Iran’s environmental community has become scared and confused.

Iran’s endangered Asiatic cheetahs are a matter of concern to the international environmental community: the lives of their endangered guardians should be too. It is good to finally see that some organisations, experts and celebrities are starting to express their concerns publicly. But the international environmental community as a whole needs to pay more attention to these developments before it’s too late. The policing of environmental activists will not remain a problem solely limited to Iran unless we stand up.

Source » theguardian