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.