Iranian environmentalists on trial: Tehran's latest miscarriage of justice unusually self-defeating

Iranian environmentalists on trial: Tehran's latest miscarriage of justice unusually self-defeating
© Getty Images

“If you were being threatened with a needle of hallucinogenic drugs [hovering] above your arm, you would also confess to whatever they wanted you to confess.” 

So said Iranian environmentalist Niloufar Bayani in early February before Iran’s Revolutionary Court, rejecting spurious charges of “corruption on earth” — a nebulous, all-inclusive allegation that Tehran often deploys to justify prosecuting regime opponents. Coerced confessions are a hallmark of Iran’s judicial system, but Tehran’s latest miscarriage of justice is unusually self-defeating.

Bayani and her seven co-defendants, who face a range of similar security-related charges, have devoted their careers to saving Iran’s endangered wildlife, whose vulnerability reflects the pervasive water shortages fueling nationwide protests over the past 14 months. By persecuting such activists, the mullahs ultimately risk exacerbating not only the popular uprising but also one of its major causes.


The ordeal of the defendants, all of whom work for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), dates to early 2018. In the first weeks of the unrest, the regime incarcerated thousands of demonstrators, including the eight PWHF employees — one of whom, Morad Tahbaz, is an Iranian-British-American — and dozens of other environmentalists.

A ninth PWHF detainee, Iranian-Canadian Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in prison in February 2018, less than two weeks after his arrest. The regime said he committed suicide after confessing to espionage, a claim rejected by his family, which demanded — and has yet to receive — an impartial investigation. Troublingly, a preliminary autopsy report failed to list the cause of death, and found multiple bruises on the victim’s body as well as evidence on his skin of an injection.

The regime eventually released most of the environmentalists. But the eight PWHF employees still languish in jail, facing the dubious appraisal of a court specially established to arraign Tehran’s perceived ideological rivals. The tribunal’s chief, Abolghassem Salavati, is widely known as a “judge of death,” and harbors a long history of collaborating with the regime to imprison or even execute political dissidents.

In November, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, Iran’s prosecutor-general, linked the detainees to Iran’s two chief foreign adversaries. “For some years,” he said, “the U.S. and Israel have been infiltrating sensitive and vital locations in the country through their agents in the environmental field.” The environmentalists, he added, “installed cameras so they could supposedly watch some animal.”

Earlier this month, Montazeri doubled down. “As the prosecutor-general, and on the bases of evidence and documents, I believe the eight are definitely spies,” he said.

But details leaked from the closed-door trial suggest the charges hardly withstand scrutiny. Bayani’s forced confession formed a key basis for the indictment read in court, which Tehran refused to provide to the defendants. The judiciary also denied the environmentalists a lawyer of their own choosing, instead requiring them to select one from a list it had preapproved. The court even barred the families of the defendants from attending the trial.

Of the eight environmentalists, Tahbaz, as an Iranian-British-American, may be of greatest use to the regime. In January 2016, Washington and Tehran clinched a deal for the release of four other Iranian-Americans — two of whom Salavati had sentenced — in exchange for dramatic U.S. concessions, including the release of seven Iranian sanctions violators and a cash payment of $400 million. The Obama administration subsequently sent Iran an additional $1.3 billion, but claimed that the payments aimed to settle an old debt to Tehran.


Tehran may hope it can reach a similar agreement for the freedom of Tahbaz. And this prospect may help explain why Tehran’s larger persecution of the PWHF persists. As a matter of policy, Tehran refuses to recognize dual citizenship, fearing that Western intelligence agencies recruit dual nationals in order to infiltrate the regime. This conspiratorial worldview may have led the judiciary to suspect that Seyed-Emami and Tahbaz — and, by association, their PWHF colleagues — collaborated with Iran’s Western foes.

The mass demonstrations of the past year likely compounded these fears. Mindful that Iran’s pervasive water shortages have played a key role in fueling the unrest, Tehran may have worried that environmental activists, with or without help from Washington and Jerusalem, aim to galvanize protesters by drawing attention to its failed environmental stewardship. By targeting them for arrest, the regime may hope to deter future protests and thwart putative foreign meddling.

Tellingly, during a talk at the Munich Security Conference last month, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif deflected a question about the environmentalists, instead changing the subject to the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. Pressed by the interviewer, Zarif eventually acknowledged that Iran has “excesses,” but then claimed that Tehran has an “independent judiciary,” thereby precluding his intervention.

In fact, in April 2018, only three months after Tahbaz’s arrest, Zarif suggested otherwise. While “the judiciary is independent from the executive,” he declared, the executive “can intervene” when “we engage in negotiations with a foreign government to exchange prisoners.” He then explicitly cited the January 2016 swap as a precedent. Asked whether he therefore would consider dialogue with Washington for another trade, Zarif said, “I’m not discounting that possibility.”

In the end, though, whatever the fate of the PWHF detainees, the best way for the mullahs to preserve their grip on power would be to heed the cries of their people. Rather than victimize environmentalists, Tehran should regard them as assets in fighting a nationwide drought, which threatens both the regime and its people in equal measure. Until then, Tehran may be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

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.