“I have returned” to Iran, tweeted a newly appointed environmental official charged with resolving the country’s water crisis, “with the hope of creating #hope.” Within months, however, that hope evaporated – and he found himself arrested, interrogated, and facing a government-coordinated smear campaign.
Kaveh Madani, a Western-educated Iranian water expert, formally resigned in April in the wake of spurious charges of disloyalty to the Islamist regime. The rise and fall of the deputy head of Iran’s Department of the Environment not only reflects Tehran’s chronic mismanagement of its water resources. Rather, it also mirrors the years-long drought of talent in Iran, which continues to face a spiraling “brain drain” as its citizens flee the regime’s repressive rule.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Born in Tehran in 1981, Madani first left the country after college, obtaining a master’s degree in water resources from Sweden’s Lund University and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of California. He quickly gained a global reputation for his research and expertise. He won prestigious awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the European Geosciences Union. He conducted a TedX talk about global water scarcity. He appeared in Al Jazeera and BBC documentaries. He received a professorship at Imperial College London.
Eventually, his work caught the attention of the Iranian government, which faced a burgeoning, decades-old environmental predicament of its own. Nationwide water shortages, which Madani described as “unprecedented,” had generated widespread social discontent. Key rivers dried up. Millions of Iranians moved from the countryside to cities. Long before nationwide demonstrations began in late December of 2017, protests routinely punctuated affected areas. If the water shortage persists, warned Isa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Department of the Environment, in a 2015 interview, 50 million Iranians will need to relocate to survive.
Madani placed the lion’s share of culpability on regime mismanagement. “The government blames the current crisis on the changing climate, frequent droughts, and international sanctions, believing that water shortages are periodic,” he wrote in a 2014 paper. However, he noted, “these exogenous issues are only crisis catalyzers, not the main cause of the water crisis.” Iranians, he argued, “have failed to invest sufficiently into developing a resilient water management system.”
In September 2017, Tehran announced Madani’s appointment as the deputy environment chief. The development constituted an unusual milestone for Iran. First, it represented an implicit, and atypical, acknowledgement by the regime of its own failures — not to mention a willingness to consider the counsel of external critics. Second, it marked the rare return of a prominent Iranian professional from the diaspora, to which millions of Iranians have retreated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly pledged to reverse the exodus by respecting democratic norms and improving economic opportunity in Iran. And before long, Madani became a symbol of expatriate return, a role he willingly embraced. “There are a lot of people abroad, waiting and watching closely to see what’s going to happen,” he said in December. “If I succeed, we might see more people coming back to help the government.”
But it was not meant to be. Notwithstanding Rouhani’s efforts, Tehran has long regarded Iranians with Western ties, particularly dual nationals, as potential threats to its entrenched Islamist ideology. In this conspiratorial worldview, the West seeks to undermine the regime by infiltrating the country with foreign values contrary to Shiite Islam. Although Madani lacks citizenship in another country, his years living in the United States and Europe proved sufficient to trigger intense suspicion within the clerical regime.
Thus, the regime began spying on Madani as soon as he returned to Iran, breaking into his personal computer and accounts. In February, Tehran briefly arrested and interrogated him. Days later, the newspaper Kayhan, which Iran’s supreme leader controls, accused him of spying for enemy governments and incorrectly identified him as a dual national. On March 31, Tasnim, a news site affiliated with the regime, posted a photo of Madani dancing at a private party with a woman not wearing the mandatory hijab, or headscarf.
In mid-April, Madani resigned and left Iran, confirming the news on Twitter. “Yes,” he wrote on April 17, “the accused fled from a country where virtual bullies push against science, knowledge and expertise and resort to conspiracy theories to find a scapegoat for all the problems because they know well that finding an enemy, spy or someone to blame is much easier than accepting responsibility and complicity in a problem.” The regime remained unmoved. On April 22, Kayhan published an article titled, “His debauchery aside, Madani’s primary crime was espionage.”
The grim story of Madani’s fleeting career in government offers a potent metaphor for the ideologically driven myopia that lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic. At a time when nationwide protests – animated in part by the water crisis – continue to threaten the clerical regime’s viability, Tehran’s anti-Western paranoia has stymied its ability to enact the very measures that not only would help stabilize its grip on power, but also would ensure the country’s very survival. In the name of self-preservation, the government effectively sows the seeds of its own decline.
“This is a lesson for Iranian experts living abroad!” tweeted Iranian lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi after learning of Madani’s resignation. But it may offer a more troubling lesson for Iranians still living at home. As Iranian journalist Nahid Molavi put it, “It might be a simple thing for you to resign and leave, but for us it means the extinction of the last flickers of hope.”
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.