Caught in the Crossfire

An arid country with mismanaged water resources, Iran is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Yet it is persecuting experts who could help it chart a path for the difficult decades to come.

IF KAVEH MADANI hadn’t missed his plane back to Tehran in early 2018, he would probably still be in prison today. But his meeting in Bangkok ran late, and so a carefully laid plan by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was foiled.

Madani was on a government work trip as deputy head of the Iranian environment department. A world-renowned water expert, he had been in the job less than six months, having given up a tenured position at London’s Imperial College to help his homeland deal with a devastating years-long drought. But the Revolutionary Guards — a parallel branch of power in Iran with its own army, intelligence agents, and business empire separate from the elected government — were convinced that Madani was a Western spy, sent to somehow undermine the Islamic Republic, and they were determined to take him down.

The Guards had seized his phone and laptop when he first arrived in the country to start his new position, and had interrogated him multiple times since. Now, it seemed, their plan was to leak years-old photos that they had hacked from his computer and claim he had engaged in inappropriate behavior while on the work trip to Asia. With Iran’s strict social codes, photos of him at a party with alcohol and dancing would be enough to get him fired from his government post. Having lost his political protection, his next stop would be the notorious Evin Prison, located in Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Among those targeted were the staff of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an apolitical organization working to save the endangered Asian cheetah.

Other activists and experts were already behind bars at the time. The Revolutionary Guards had recently launched a wave of arrests targeting environmental activists, which, even by their standards of ceaselessly attacking independent NGOs, rights groups, journalists, and unions, was as baffling as it was horrific. Among those targeted were the staff of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an apolitical organization working to save the endangered Asian cheetah. The Guards claimed the program was a cover to place secret cameras in the desert to film the country’s missile facilities — a claim that danced a familiar line between breathtaking cynicism and catastrophic ignorance, one that would “make a cooked chicken laugh,” as the Persian saying goes. Shortly after being arrested, the head of the foundation, a much-loved academic named Kavous Emami, was found dead in his cell. His family disputes the authorities’ claim that he committed suicide.

It was pure luck that saved Madani from a similar fate. His new travel plans included a stopover in Istanbul, and it was there that he saw pictures of himself spreading across Iranian social media channels, with fabricated claims that he had been partying while away. He knew instantly that he could never go back to Iran. He cancelled his connecting flight and went into hiding.

Others were not so lucky. Almost three years later, eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation have yet to emerge from the black hole of Tehran’s prison system. Some have reportedly been tortured, physically and psychologically. For months, several faced charges of mofsed-e-filarz, or “spreading corruption on Earth,” conviction of which could have sent them to the gallows. It was a small reprieve this February when their final charges were limited to espionage, and instead of a death sentence. They received between four and ten years in prison.

The targeting of Iranian environmentalists and scientists has been condemned by human rights groups across the world. It has also had immediate repercussions on conservation work in Iran, a country that has long struggled with water-scarcity challenges and that now finds itself on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I flew to Kerman province in southern Iran, famous as the heart of the country’s pistachio industry, to see the damage that severe water shortages have wrought in the region. I landed in the regional capital of Sirjan and drove from there with a local journalist out into the vast hinterland. Desert would be too evocative a word for the empty landscape that stretched out before us: no rolling yellow dunes, just a nondescript beige of dirt and rock. The true, momentous scale of Persia was to be found out here, forbidding but also awe-inspiring.

As we continued on our drive, some shapes came into view on the horizon: a deserted village consisting of three lines of mud-walled buildings in a large U-shape. The silence around the buildings’ bulbous, domed roofs gave it the ghostly feel of an outpost from which the residents — a couple of hundred maybe — had suddenly fled. In fact, they had watched their village slowly die of thirst, their livelihood turn to dust before their eyes. It was impossible to imagine that the brown fields surrounding the village were once a lush green. But all that remained were the bleached-white carcasses of dead pistachio bushes, their desiccated branches crunching underfoot.

As I stepped out of the car the heat wrapped instantly around me. We climbed up onto the roof of an abandoned storehouse and stared at the bleak landscape below. The furrows of the farmland were still visible, but I had never seen a place so devoid of moisture. The farmers here, unschooled in how to preserve the water stored in underground aquifers, had simply shoved taps into the earth and flooded the gardens whenever their bushes needed it.

In 2018, world-renowned water expert Kaveh Madani narrowly evaded arrest by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who were convinced he was a Western spy. He now lives in the US. Photo by Arwa Aburawa / Al Jazeera English.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 led to a population boom — the country’s population grew from roughly 37 million to nearly 55 million in the decade that followed — as well as land redistribution and the arrival of electric pumps. The need to preserve water was little understood and secondary to achieving self-sufficiency amid the diplomatic isolation that accompanied the revolution and the war with Iraq that followed. By the late 1990s, many underground reservoirs had been exhausted. A 2013 survey found that Kerman province, the heart of the pistachio industry, was losing about 20,000 hectares of pistachio farms every year to desertification.

Perhaps more than any other factor, water has defined Iran’s trajectory over the centuries — not just its agriculture, but its politics, its social relations, its greatest endeavours, and its most terrible crimes. One of the country’s leading historians, Homa Katouzian, argues it was the lack of water in the desert plains that prevented the creation of large settlements, of lords and their courts, that were necessary for European-style feudalism. That left just an all-powerful king sitting atop a sparsely populated expanse, never needing to pander to an aristocracy. Society was characterized by arbitrary rule and short-term horizons, which bred an essential rebelliousness into the Iranian spirit, he says.

Water scarcity also produced incredible feats of engineering: a web of underground aqueducts known as “qanats” that have carried water from the heads of river valleys in the mountains to the arid plains for over 2,000 years. Many of the qanats are still in use today. The rapid development of the twentieth century meant expert warnings about water usage were often ignored. The Islamic Republic favored large dams that often interrupted rivers and cut off aquifers, forcing many Iranians to drill deeper and deeper to reach underground water stores for themselves. Today, some 300,000 of Iran’s 750,000 water pumps are said to be illegal.

Lake Urima, 1984



Once the world’s second largest saltwater lake, Lake Urima is now a fraction of its former size thanks to water mismanagement and climate
change. Recently, the government has been leading efforts to reduce pressure on the lake. Photos by NASA.

The problem of water overuse has been compounded by the years-long drought that began at the turn of the twentieth century. By early 2019, an estimated 97 percent of Iran was experiencing drought conditions, much of it “severely extreme” or “extreme” in nature. Later that year, the drought broke dramatically when above-average rains led to flash floods that brought destruction and death across much of the country. But the scorched ground could not absorb large amounts of water at once, so the wet year did little to quell the country’s thirst — even after the floods, about a third of the country’s population faced water shortages.

The effects of all this were clearly visible as we continued our journey through the Kerman desert, eventually coming across a little oasis of green among some ramshackle houses. A grey-haired man standing in his courtyard spotted us and invited us in for tea. His name was Hassan Ali Firouzabadi. He told me about working this hard terrain for the past half-century and showed me a vast, regal pistachio tree that had been there since the golden age of Shah Abbas in the seventeenth century. Its leaves had turned yellow-green from the salty water now being dredged up from underground.

“The well was about 6 meters deep when I was a child, but now it’s 150 meters, and the water is bitter,” Firouzabadi said. “This used to be a village full of people. Most have left to become laborers and drivers. Ten more years and there will be nothing left.” He still flooded the fields every few days.

Back on the highway, we stopped suddenly at the sight of an enormous crater by the highway, some 50 feet across and 20 feet deep. It was not the only one — a line of them stretched along the road. Furrows were still visible on the adjacent land to show that it had once borne crops, until farmers sucked all the water out of the ground and the subterranean reservoirs finally collapsed.

KAVEH MADANI HAD returned to Iran in September 2017 to address the water scarcity problems and other environmental challenges. He had been specially invited by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani who was trying to coax Iranian ex-pats with scientific expertise back home.

But in Iran’s chaotic mix of competing power centers, real power lies not with the elected president but the Supreme Leader, a lifetime post currently held by Ali Khamenei, and his allies in the shadowy Revolutionary Guards who are answerable to no one. Many within the Revolutionary Guards hated the idea of Westernized Iranians returning, and they were particularly suspicious of the media attention that Madani’s arrival had generated. Their intelligence agents were on his case from the moment he arrived, even setting up a special interrogation room in the airport to grill him.

“For them, it was obvious that I was being promoted by the Americans and the Brits to make a star out of me so that I would become a big figure who can shape narratives, misadvise them, affect the development plan, stop them building dams, and so on and so on,” Madani told me. We were speaking in his office at Yale University, where he eventually resurfaced in 2019 after months of lying low. Having scuppered the smear campaign against him by the Revolutionary Guards, he was still too afraid to travel in Europe or the Middle East, fearing that might put him within reach of Iranian operatives.

‘Interrogations in Iran become a game of consistency. They are looking for little flaws in your statements, picking out small parts of your story and putting these pieces together to make their own story.’

When I said it seemed ridiculous for the Guards to have doubted his credentials — his scientific papers were available for anyone to see and he had never taken political positions — he sighed: “This is why people end up in jail — because they think like you. You are thinking according to the rules of logic … Interrogations in Iran become a game of consistency. They are looking for little flaws in your statements, picking out small parts of your story and putting these pieces together to make their own story.”

Madani was also unlucky. The Guards were able to make a very tenuous link between him and a US billionaire named Thomas Kaplan, who used his wealth to fund hatred of the Islamic Republic through his support of the group United Against Nuclear Iran. Just one day before Madani began his new job, Kaplan gave a high-profile speech in New York that threw embers onto the dry leaves of the Guards’ paranoia, comparing Iran’s policies in the Middle East to the way a “reticulated python digests a goat.” Unfortunately, Kaplan’s other interest is wildlife conservation: He is the founder of the well-known big cat conservation group, Panthera, whose projects include protecting the remaining Asian cheetahs in Iran — through a partnership with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

Iran’s pistachio farmers, accustomed to flooding their fields whenever their trees needed water, have suffered as underground reservoirs have dried up in recent decades. Photo by Caren Firouz / Reuters.

Madani is more interested in water than cheetahs, but the Guards discovered that he had once spoken at a conference co-organized by the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in London. They raised this again and again in interrogations. “For them, everything is about guilt by association — networks,” Madani told me. “These [interrogators] are very emotional, young people, who have not seen the outside world … They have been told there are cases of infiltration and they’re determined to find them.”

The interrogations often focused on a mix of half-understood theories sellotaped together from things the interrogators had read on the Internet: The West was looking to engineer a water war; genetically-modified crops would kill Iranian agriculture; the United Nations was trying to lower the birth rate to eradicate the Iranian race. The story for Madani eventually coalesced into the idea that he was trying to limit Iran’s use of water so as to prevent the country from becoming self-sufficient in food production.

It wasn’t just Madani that the Revolutionary Guards were paranoid about. Not long after my visit to Kerman in 2017, the head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization (a branch of the Revolutionary Guards), Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, announced: “Foreign interference is suspected to have played a role in climate change. Israel and another country in the region have joint teams which work to ensure clouds entering Iranian skies are unable to release rain.” He added that there was a scientific study to prove it, though he didn’t share the citation. “On top of that, we are facing the issue of cloud and snow theft,” Jalali added for good measure.

When heavy flooding hit a number of provinces the following year, a “Special Investigating Task Force” for Tasnim, the in-house news agency of the Revolutionary Guards, took the unorthodox approach of turning to the 2017 Hollywood blockbuster GeoStorm, starring Gerard Butler, for answers. “The GeoStorm film gives us a special message,” Tasnim wrote. “The United States has a specific program for manipulating the climate.”

As aquifers are drawn down, wetlands dry out, and dust storms become more frequent, millions of Iranians are being driven off farms that no longer sustain life.

Such a statement would be comical if the stakes were not so high. As aquifers are drawn down, wetlands dry out, and dust storms become more frequent, millions of Iranians are being driven off farms that no longer sustain life, washing up on the ugly edges of modernity in second-tier towns and cities where they encounter joblessness and poverty. It is no coincidence that little-known suburbs and satellite towns were the loci of dissent during mass protests in 2017 and 2019 that were met with violent suppression.

Still more migration is likely to follow. Global warming is expected to amplify many of the challenges Iran is already facing by further decreasing precipitation, increasing temperatures, and leading to more frequent floods over the coming decades. The country’s environment department predicts that water supplies will only support a third of the current population by 2050, and environment minister Isa Kalantari has estimated that the country could lose 70 percent of its agricultural land in the coming decades. But rather than turn to help from experts who could help deal with these problems, the Revolutionary Guards have persecuted them.

NOT LONG AFTER THE Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation arrests, I was at a party in Tehran where a gang of friends had gathered to make sushi and listen to tunes. Talk was along the usual lines: who was emigrating and who was coming back, who had found work and who had lost jobs under the new sanctions against Iran.

I couldn’t help but notice that one person seemed removed from the group as everyone else laughed and danced. A friend caught me staring and whispered in my ear: “He was arrested with the others. They only kept him for a few months but when he came out, he was very different. He had become very religious.”

While we were enjoying ourselves, their friends from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were in prison on the other side of town awaiting trial in a case that had been condemned around the world. More than 130 conservationists, led by Jane Goodall, had signed a letter demanding their release. The United Nations Environment Program strongly criticized the case, saying the authorities had “responded to legitimate conservation efforts of environmentalists by criminalizing their actions.”

The terrible irony was that even Iran’s own elected government had rejected the case, saying the accusations were baseless. But even this could not save them: The Revolutionary Guards did largely as they pleased.

The human rights group Amnesty International says some of the group were tortured. A family member who visited one of the inmates said they had broken teeth and bruising on their bodies. They suffered prolonged isolation designed to extract confessions. When one of them, Niloufar Bayani, finally appeared in court, she stated that the interrogators had threatened to beat her, inject her with hallucinogenic drugs, pull out her fingernails, and arrest her parents; that they showed her a piece of paper claiming it was her death sentence and pictures of her colleague Emami’s dead body, implying she would meet a similar fate. She was ejected from the court and banned from further appearances before being sentenced to ten years.

Prior to 2018, the environment had been one of the few subjects that could still attract young Iranians trying to do something positive for their country.

“These sentences followed sham prosecutions that proceeded without any evidence of wrongdoing and were based on false ‘confessions’ extracted under torture,” said Hadi Ghaemi, of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, when the trial concluded this past February, adding that the decision “makes a mockery of the Iranian justice system.”

Prior to 2018, the environment had been one of the few subjects that could still attract young Iranians trying to do something positive for their country. While almost all avenues for political activism had been ruthlessly shut down, conservation was still viewed as largely apolitical and therefore safe. The wave of arrests of people working in this sector changed all that — just as previous operations against bloggers and tech entrepreneurs had crushed other emerging youth movements in the country.

Eight Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation staff, pictured in the poster above, are currently serving out sentences in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. A ninth, Kavous Emami, was found deceased in his cell shortly after being arrested. Image courtesy #anyhopefornature Campaign.

“The environmental crisis has become one of Iran’s major challenges in the past decade — a serious economic issue with real-life consequences for many people in rural and urban areas,” Ghaemi told me. “A lot of the water and agricultural problems are due to overbuilding dams or a lack of environmental impact assessments, and due to projects built by so-called private companies with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, so these arrests have a lot to do with money-making and not having an environmental movement that questions your policies.”

The more general problem was that the Iranian authorities disliked any movement that was becoming popular at the grassroots level. “The Guards worry about any network like that,” Ghaemi said. “Policymaking, as usual, is in the hands of a few who don’t want any transparency or accountability.”

As for Madani, he is relatively safe in the US for now, but continues to be harassed online by Islamic Republic operatives. He is saddened by the environmental crisis in Iran and the lack of proper leadership. “Iran is water bankrupt; supply is less than demand. I tried to tell them: Be realistic about what you have. Adapt to your new situation,” he said. “But they didn’t want to listen.”

President Rouhani’s government, in power since 2013, at least tried to acknowledge the problem. It backed a successful project to regenerate Iran’s iconic Lake Urmia in the northwest, one of the world’s largest salt lakes that is rapidly disappearing. However, economic mismanagement and corruption — compounded by US sanctions and now the coronavirus pandemic — have left little money to finance the new technologies needed to make agriculture more sustainable. And silencing the very activists who were alert to the dangers can only worsen the crisis.

Back at the party, we had finished the sushi and dancing and collapsed into our chairs when I felt the mood suddenly drop. Four or five of the group were huddled around the kitchen counter. The smiles were gone. “They are talking about one of the guys in prison,” said my friend, leaning in again. “It is his birthday tomorrow and they are thinking about what they can do.” And then they leaned back, and it was as if a bell had been rung and the interlude ended: The music went back up, the smiles returned. I was amazed at how they could jump from something so depressing back into a party mood. But, of course, they didn’t have a choice — life had to continue.

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