Madani’s resignation sheds light on Iranian power play
In a “resignation letter” in Farsi posted on social media, Kaveh Madani revealed he was put under pressure as soon as he returned to Iran last September to become deputy head of the Environment Department.
His arrival began a tussle in which Madani took up Iran’s environmental challenges — water shortages, air pollution, waste — even as principlist or fundamentalist critics of Iranian President Hassan Rohani undermined the scientist. While the principlist media attacked Madani, the intelligence services, including those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, kept close tabs.
Madani was detained for 72 hours in February but, once released, resumed his work. By March 31, principlist outlets were publishing “incriminating” photographs, including ones of Madani dancing. Such behaviour is considered inappropriate for an Iranian official.
The dancing was at a party during a 2013 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco and not, as claimed, while he was an Environment Department official. Madani’s resignation letter suggests the photographs were taken from his smartphone and computer “without legal permission,” presumably during questioning, thereby “violating his citizen’s rights and privacy.”
Madani’s letter says he stood down with a “broken but hopeful heart.” In a separate posting on Twitter he condemned “cyber-bullies” who “reject science, knowledge and expertise.”
In a way, Madani was a ready target for the principlists as someone who had worked abroad, especially at Imperial College London. Britain has had a longtime role in popular Iranian culture as a conspirator. However, Madani, 36, proved to be a tough nut to crack.
This was partly because he was deputy vice-president, given the head of the Environment Department (DoE) is a vice-president. Curbing Madani was more complicated than arresting the 12 or more campaigners jailed as security services target environmental NGOs. Iran has 850 such NGOs and the security services suspect their activities are a cover for espionage. With Madani, they needed stronger “evidence.”
This need was heightened by Madani’s success in reaching out to government officials and the public about environmental issues. He explained complex problems in accessible terms and suggested solutions that were within reach. Much of the Iranian media warmed to his message.
In an interview with The Arab Weekly shortly before he resigned, Madani stressed his efforts to energise the department. “As a supervisory body, the DoE is responsible for almost anything related to the environment but has not been politically strong and has not practised its rights to prevent today’s environmental problems. We have good laws, the problem is execution, but we also have to care and act as individuals,” he said.
Madani cited the “NoWaste Challenge” he initiated on Instagram and Twitter, which began with ministers and actors recording 1-minute videos on “What do you do to reduce waste in the environment?” Iranians aged 5 to 90 responded.
“I tried to remind people about their responsibilities as citizens,” said Madani. “No matter how good or bad the government is, we citizens must take actions by moving small stones.”
When Madani was detained in February, there was immediate reaction on social media. He also had the continuing backing of Isa Kalantari, vice-president and DoE chief, who had headhunted Madani and wanted him to stay.
However, principlist social media were describing Madani as a “water terrorist” involved in dark conspiracies. There was even the suggestion that his “network” was responsible for dams draining lakes such as Urmia though he was opposed to “hydraulic” solutions.
There were reports that Madani was a dual national, making his loyalty suspect and because the law bars dual nationals from any government position. No doubt this was raised in his questioning but Madani in an interview with the official ILNA news agency in October said he held only an Iranian passport. A friend said Madani required a work permit while at Imperial College and would need a visa to return to the United Kingdom.
Indirect evidence of pressure came with Madani’s rising numbers of videos and tweets in the weeks before his resignation. He explained his views on water, food security and other issues and defended his role as a scientist who had worked internationally.
However, photographs showing him dancing were released, possibly as a pretext for his arrest, just as Madani was due back from Thailand. He had been representing Iran at a UN meeting, unexpectedly was delayed and, once he heard about the photographs, decided not to return but resigned instead.
His departure was immediately welcomed by many exiled Iranians who say he was naive to believe he could change Iran. Others expressed disappointment. “Kaveh was a symbol of hope but look at what has happened,” a professor told The Arab Weekly. “For a small group in Iran, you are an enemy no matter how objective you are. It’s very sad.”
In his interview with The Arab Weekly, Madani was optimistic. “To fix the environment, we have to change many things in our development model and, like most countries in the world, we’re not there yet,” he said.
“In Iran, everyone now knows we have made many mistakes in water development plans. I feel proud that some of my studies are now public knowledge and that tragedies like the drying up of Lake Urmia… have helped the public and government understand that environment must not be neglected. This may help prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.