Academic's death in Iran sheds light on political infighting

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 8:20 AM

Ladane Nasseri and Golnar Motevalli

(c) 2018, Bloomberg.

Iran’s environmental woes have ignited a new front between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his hardline opponents, with the stakes raised by the death in prison of an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist and several arrests.

An area of activity once considered innocuous in Iran has taken on political overtones, in part because it involves dual nationals and expatriates, disparaged by hardliners as tainted by Western mores. At least four environmentalists have been taken into custody, and Iran’s hardline judiciary said several people were detained for “giving classified information from sensitive centers” to U.S. and Israeli intelligence services.

The feud turned more fraught over the weekend with the death of Kavous Seyed Emami, an academic, and confusion about the whereabouts of Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment.

Since his first election in 2013, Rouhani has been in the hardliners’ crosshairs over his desire to open Iran through a nuclear deal with world powers, and his declared commitment to greater personal liberties. His recent decision to tackle a growing crisis over heavy smog and a water shortage - an issue where Iranians with Western links have been active - has given rivals another opportunity to pounce on him.

“By virtue of it becoming a public issue it becomes a field that’s interesting” to the president’s hardline political opponents, said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London. They’ve identified it as new arena to “conduct this infighting and embarrass the Rouhani administration.”

The president, re-elected in May, is under increasing pressure from both rivals and ordinary Iranians to make good on campaign promises to improve the economy by attracting foreign investment after a decade of strict sanctions. President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw from the nuclear accord has damped foreign interest in Iran, which was already compromised by remaining U.S. proscriptions against some trade with the Islamic Republic.

Hardliners were jubilant when protests erupted in December against the Rouhani government’s handling of the economy, though their satisfaction faded after demonstrators turned on the clerical and security establishment as well.

Authorities said Seyed Emami, the Iranian-Canadian academic, committed suicide, an allegation his family questions. Government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said Tuesday that prisoners are “entrusted” to judicial officials, and their well-being is a responsibility, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Madani, an American-educated former lecturer at Imperial College in London, seems to have been released after a brief detention. He appeared in an Instagram live video Monday and the German ambassador to Tehran posted a picture of him after they met.

The environmental debate fed into the infighting because Iranian security forces are always looking for connections to outside opposition as justification for a clampdown, said Rouzbeh Parsi, director of the Sweden-based European Iran Research Group, which promotes cooperation between Europe and Iran.

Sensitivity to foreign involvement has been heightened as groups abroad opposed to Iran’s political establishment use the environmental debate as the “latest baseball bat to hit the Islamic Republic with,” Parsi said.

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