When Kaveh Madani returned to Iran last September to serve as his country’s deputy vice president for the environment, political hardliners didn’t exactly lay out a welcome mat. Upon his arrival in Tehran, the water management expert was detained and interrogated, and several years’ worth of his photos and emails were confiscated.
Eventually, things settled down and Madani, 36, a specialist on Iran’s dwindling water resources, started to raise his profile inside the country. Prior to his homecoming, he had been a faculty member at Imperial College London and spent 14 years overseas, including 3 years at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
But domestic politics in Iran took a sinister turn this past January. That month, in the wake of nationwide protests over the sputtering economy, security officers arrested seven environmental activists. The public prosecutor accused them of spying, alleging, among other things, that camera traps for monitoring rare Asiatic cheetahs and other wildlife were intended to eavesdrop on the nation’s ballistic missile program. In February, one detainee, Kavous Seyed-Emami, co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Tehran, died in mysterious circumstances in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Authorities claim he committed suicide.