The environmental activist Kaveh Madani is just the latest brilliant Iranian to give up trying to help his country.
The theocracy brags about reversing the brain drain. Until two weeks ago it could point to Madani as proof that their effort was working. His departure exposes the lie.
Our leaders have a fundamental problem. If they truly reverse the brain drain, they’re sowing the seeds of their own collapse.
Those who have left but were enticed back — whether they’re intellectuals, artists, legal activists or skilled businessmen — are precisely those likely to challenge the system and its duplicity and corruption. They see themselves as engines of change, and do not accept totalitarianism dressed up in revolutionary-religious dogma.
Kaveh Madani was one of these, and as such his return to Iran may have been doomed from the start.
Our officials – whether they’re reformists or hardline “principlists”– respond to people like Madani by trying to silence them, with jail, threats or bribes.
Some Iranian intellectuals who have no choice to live abroad are trapped here. They may think critically and plot reform in private, but can’t share their ideas openly with the wider public and certainly not through any kind of civil society organization. Many work discreetly and try to stay below the official radar.
Others let themselves be co-opted with sweeteners (jobs, connections, perks) to support the official line. They are the whitewash that lends false credibility to a failed system.
Then there’s another group – the dedicated and able Iranian exiles who try to organize change from abroad, and quickly discover how difficult it is. Ideas powerful enough to initiate progress and reform in Iran are immediately cast by the regime as “conspiracies of the corrupted west.” Our leaders fear, with reason, that movements for change can spiral out of control to produce chaos, conflict and a thirst for revenge against the leaders themselves.
Finally there’s a smaller group of exceptional intellectual reformers – small and brave. It’s made up of those who moved away, achieved success abroad and then, fueled with a love of country and a dash of idealism, decide to come home.
Like Kaveh Madani.
A brilliant scientist with a prestigious and secure position at London’s Imperial College, he returned to Iran last year to become the youngest ever deputy-head of Iran’s Environment Department. His specialty is water and he hoped to reverse some of the disastrous policies that have left Iran with serious drought and looming catastrophic shortages. Pursuing this goal was always going to mean stepping on some powerful toes, especially among the Revolutionary Guards.
Madani was no innocent. He realized his initiatives would provoke a dangerous uphill battle but he forged ahead.
In his few public speeches in Iran, he tried to deliver a radical message to Iranians, especially those with means and education. Real love of country — he suggested – meant more than living as a compliant servant of the regime and, superficially at least, a pious Muslim.
Sound environmental stewardship needs engagement and guts. Iranians who really cared about the land of Flowers and Nightingales had to be willing to fight for what is right. Individual hypocrisy was the enemy.
But following a campaign of harassment, the mass arrests of environmentalists in February, and the mysterious death in jail of the respected Kavous Seyed-Emami, Madani gave up.
It is a tradition here in Iran to blame problems on those in power. Madani didn’t do that. He told us we all bear responsibility for the problems and we are all bound to push for progress.
In the end he decided the risks were just too high. There may be strength in numbers and grassroots solidarity, but it just wasn’t going to happen in Iran. Was he heartbroken that too few people were willing to take up his challenge and take on the system in the name of enlightened change?
Sadly, the brain drain has reclaimed a gifted Iranian patriot who just couldn’t do it alone.