A prominent Iranian-Australian academic has been detained in Iran as part of what appears to be a new round of prosecutions targeting people working in demography and population studies. 

Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, who teaches at the University of Melbourne, had previously been celebrated in Iran and praised by many official bodies. She was honored with a book of the year award in 2010 and had close links with Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, the head of the Population Association of Iran, with whom she has co-authored several academic articles, many of them published in Iran’s leading academic journals. She had also been invited to collaborate with Iranian Parliament’s Research Center (IPRC) and the Iranian president’s Center for Strategic Studies (CSS). 

Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has confirmed that a “professor of demography” was arrested. It quoted the lawyer Mahmood Behzadi, who said Hosseini-Chavoshi was yet to choose a lawyer from the 20 lawyers the judiciary has presented to her. The judiciary recently passed by-laws stating that in cases regarding national security issues, it will only accept lawyers from a list of 20 selected by its head, Sadegh Larijani.

Fars News Agency, close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), had reported on the arrest of a “number of infiltrators in the field of population control” in late November. On Saturday, December 1, Kayhan newspaper, a mouthpiece for the security establishment of the Islamic Republic, published what it described as an exclusive “report on new details of the arrest of several infiltrators.” It claimed these “infiltrators” were “playing with the population statistics to disrupt the country’s policies.” It also said that a “demographer with double citizenship” named “M.H” was arrested by Ministry of Intelligence forces (known by the nickname “Anonymous Soldiers of the Imam of the Time”) as she was trying to leave the country. 

Hosseini-Chavoshi worked on fertility issues in Iran and has published widely on the topic. Her book on fertility transition in Iran, co-authored with two other researchers, won the Islamic Republic’s global book of the year award in 2010. 

Iran had one of the world's most effective population control policies in the 1990s. Since 2012, however, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has pushed for a sharp turn in these policies and has officially called for a massive population increase. Khamenei has stated that the Iranian population should shoot up from its current population of 80 million to between 150 and 200 million. He declared the population control of the 1990s, conducted under the presidency of his rival, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to have been a mistake and in a very rare move, confessed that he played a personal role in this “mistake” and asked for “God’s forgiveness.” 

Despite the fact that Iranian citizens elect a president and parliamentarians, Khamenei ultimately controls the country, so the government quickly adopted his policy on population. The health minister publicly declared that all budgets for population control programs had been cut and all such programs have been discontinued. In 2016, Khamenei published a 16-point decree on “general family policies” that called for an increasing birth rate and encouraged women to be mothers, single people to marry and single mothers to re-marry. 

Hosseini-Chavoshi’s arrest is very likely part of a crackdown that might implicate people close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani. Hessameddin Ashena, a key adviser to the president, attacked Fars News Agency after it published the report in late November. He accused it of “securitizing” the work of demographers just as it had done with environmentalists —a reference to the wave of arrests of Iranian environmentalists early this year. Many Iranian environmentalists remain in jail almost a year later. They were accused of espionage and some are known to have been charged with “corruption on earth,” an ominous criminal charge that could carry the death penalty. Among those arrested was Kavous Seyed-Emami, a notable Iranian sociologist who was found dead in his cell on February 8, two weeks after his arrest. The authorities said he had committed suicide but his family denies this. 


Official Conspiracies 

Kayhan is known to have close links to the country’s notorious security establishment and often leads propaganda attacks and weaves conspiracy theories into its reporting in conjunction with crackdowns. 

On Sunday, December 2, it claimed that a ring of demographers was spreading false information in Iran in order to exaggerate the country’s rate of fertility. They had even lobbied at the United Nations to “erase UN reports on Iran’s population crisis,” it claimed. In addition to its reference to Hosseini-Chavoshi, it mentioned that Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi had been “summoned a few times.” It also highlighted the journal articles the two had co-written and said they were friends. 

Kayhan accused Hosseini-Chavoshi of engaging in “social espionage” and to have been collaborating with the Ford, Rockefeller and Gates foundations as well as the United Nations’ “anti-Population Fund.” “They did all they could to disrupt the country’s population policies,” it said. 

Nasrollah Pejmanfar, an MP from Mashhad and a member of the Resistance Front, an ultra-conservative political faction in the parliament, also spoke publicly about the case. The arrested demographers were giving “false population statistics,” he told the Young Journalist Club (YJC), an outlet linked to the country’s conservative-controlled state broadcaster. 

“They lobbied at the UN to erase all UN reports on the population statistics in Iran that had warned about the future,” Pejmanfar, who is also a member of the parliamentary Culture Committee, told the YJC. The arrestees had “collaborated with some people inside the government and were able to give false statistics to the regime’s foremost leaders,” he added. 

Pejmanfar claimed there was “evidence and documents that link these people to Western espionage networks” and that “they will be published at the adequate time by security bodies.”

Officials from the University of Melbourne told IranWire they were working with Australia’s foreign ministry on Hosseini-Chavoshi’s case. The university’s associate director of public affairs, Erin Dale, told IranWire the university was “working closely with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to better understand this emerging situation and as such, it is not appropriate to comment further on this.”

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