Tehran’s paranoia breeds new, strange spy cases

Iranian authorities’ bizarre accusations are so ludicrous as to provoke laughter.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Renowned environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, whom Iranian authorities claimed committed suicide in prison, in February, a fortnight after his arrest.  (AFP)
Growing paranoia. Renowned environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, whom Iranian authorities claimed committed suicide in prison, in February. (AFP)

The paranoid style of Iranian politics means that the regime is engaged in a permanent search for spies. This keeps citizens in check for fear of being denounced as foreign agents. The latest targets of the regime’s hunt for spies, however, are extraordinary, even by Iranian standards: environmental activists and a desert species of reptile.

It started tragically. Kavous Seyed Emami, a 63-year-old dual national of Iran and Canada, reportedly committed suicide February 8 at Evin Prison. He was one of the founders of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

Emami and three other environmentalist activists were arrested January 24 and charged with espionage for the United States and Israel. The other activists are Houman Jokar, who leads a project on the Asiatic cheetah; his wife, Niloofar, a former environmental affairs adviser to the United Nations; and Morad Tahbaz, an environmental and cultural activist.

Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ezhei, a judiciary spokesman, confirmed the environmentalist activists’ arrest on espionage charges. However, the authorities are yet to produce evidence of Emami’s alleged spying. His record points to something other than the betrayal of Iran. He was from a respected clerical family and there is no indication he harboured animosity towards the regime.

Emami’s son, Ramin Seyed Emami, said his father returned to Iran after receiving a doctorate in international relations from Ohio State University. After the revolution, he taught sociology at Ahwaz University but volunteered to serve on the front lines when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. Emami was wounded in the war and returned to Tehran to pursue an academic career.

Since Emami’s arrest, imprisonment and reported suicide, the Iranian public has been asking: What classified information could he have had access to and why would foreign intelligence services be interested in data from an environmentalist activist?

This is where leading figures in the Iranian establishment had to get creative. Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, former chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces and a military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a comical intervention into the affair.

Asked by Iranian media about the arrest of environmentalists, Firouzabadi said: “Several years ago, some individuals came to Iran to collect aid for Palestine… We were suspicious of the route they chose. In their possession were a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons… We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that [the individuals] were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.”

The major-general’s comments say it all.

The latest spy scare in Tehran and Emami’s death are certainly tragic but the Iranian authorities’ bizarre accusations are so ludicrous as to provoke laughter.

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