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Scientist Arrested Four Months after Returning to Iran

February 11, 2018
Arash Azizi
6 min read
Scientist Arrested Four Months after Returning to Iran

Iranian authorities have arrested Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of Iran’s environment department — a well-known academic who left a London teaching job five months ago to return to Iran and join the government. Madani’s arrest comes one day after the shocking death in prison of a respected Iranian-Canadian sociologist who had collaborated with the department on wildlife conservation projects. 

Mahmood Sadeghi, a popular pro-Rouhani reformist member of parliament from Tehran, confirmed that Madani had been arrested. Initially, the environment department’s public relations division denied the news, but Sadeghi posted it on Twitter. He said when he heard that Madani had been arrested, he had gone to see Isa Kalantari, the environment department’s head, to ask what the government was doing to follow up on the arrest of environmentalists and find out more about Madani’s situation. 

The arrest of Madani follows the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, the scholar who ran a leading environmental NGO. He had been arrested on January 24 along with several other environmentalists, many of them associated with his Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Authorities claim Seyed-Emami committed suicide in prison after having “confessed” to his alleged crime of espionage. Seyed-Emami’s family reportedly reject the suicide claim, and many observers are skeptical that it would have been a possibility, given the strict security strictures for prisoners arrested on national security grounds, as he was. 

Gholamhossein Esmaili, the head of Tehran province’s judiciary, said the arrested environmentalists “were gathering information and supplying it to foreigners.” In remarks this morning, he said there could be more arrests. 

Madani is a celebrated 36-year old scholar who returned to Iran after a period abroad to serve as deputy head of Iran’s Department of the Environment. He was put in charge of running the department’s Education and Research section. Previously, he taught systems analysis and policy at London’s Imperial College for four years. Prior to that, he was an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida (UCF). An award-winning civil engineer, he was recruited by President Rouhani’s administration, primarily to work on Iran’s water crisis. As an activist, he had warned the government about the crisis for years. 

Madani was born in Tehran in 1981 to parents working in the water sector. He left the country — as so many other bright Iranians of his generation did — after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the prestigious University of Tabriz in Turkic-speaking northwestern Iran. His years after university resembled the lives of thousands of young and educated Iranians. He studied for a Master’s degree in water resources at Lund University in Sweden and then for a PhD in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, which he finished in 2009. At Davis, he worked under Professor Jay R. Lund, known for his work on water problems in California and the controversial Hetch Hetchy Dam. 

“Kaveh was always a highly-energetic and forward-looking student,” Professor Lund told IranWire when we interviewed him for an article about Madani. “It was always clear that he would be very successful in anything that he devoted himself to.” 

Madani became well known for applying Game Theory to the thorny questions of water management. Lund says this interest “blossomed into a cornerstone of his academic career and probably helped prepare for his successes in government,” adding that, early on, Madani had a gift for “bringing people together productively, both in person and through various social media.”

Recognition came soon for the young scientist. In 2012, the landmark American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) presented Madani with an award for “representing the bold and humanitarian future of civil engineering” at its annual ceremony. A similar prize was to follow from the European Geosciences Union and, finally, in 2017, he was awarded the ASCE’s Water L. Huber prize, the most prestigious award for mid-career engineers. 

It’s not unusual for Iranians to pop up on lists of engineering award-winners, especially in North America. Along with medicine, engineering has long been a preferred field for young Iranians, many of them encouraged or even pressured by parents set on having high-achieving children. But perhaps less usual for someone who had settled and been so successful abroad was the degree to which Madani kept in touch with his homeland. He traveled home regularly, sometimes to lecture at Tehran’s prestigious Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology (KNTU), named after the illustrious polymath of 13th-century Persia. 

Iran had long been suffering from the “syndrome of development illusion,” Madani said, tracing the phenomenon back to the shah’s time and projects financed by high oil prices. 

“After the revolution, our thirst for development went up,” he added. “We keep wanting to show the world that we can build and build and build. The same thing plagues countries like China, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.” 

When journalist Gelareh Darabi made an Al-Jazeera documentary about Iran’s water crisis, Madani became the film’s star attraction. Speaking in well-articulated English, he accompanied the director to the city of Isfahan, where the famous river Zayandeh Rood, so loved by many an Iranian, is now nothing but dry ground.

The Rouhani administration took note. In February 2017, Madani was invited to head Iran’s first international climate change conference. A few months later, Rouhani was re-elected and pledged to continue his modernizing agenda. Several environmental NGOs had been pushing for Madani as a possible minister of energy. Hopes were dashed when Rouhani announced his cabinet — once more full of old hands without a single seat going to a woman. But in September 2017 came the surprise appointment. Madani packed his bags to come to Tehran and serve a government that pledges good governance but faces the high expectations of a wary population. 

Saeed Hadian, a senior associate at PricewaterHouseCoopers’ San Fransisco office, has known Kaveh Madani for seven years. In 2010, when Hadian arrived at the University of Central Florida to study for his PhD, Kaveh Madani was just starting out as a professor. 

“Kaveh was the most humble professor I had ever met,” Hadian told IranWire in an interview from Tehran during a visit there. “I became familiar with his research background and was really interested in what he was doing. I was looking to work with him on a project. I asked for an opportunity and he gave me one.” 

Madani became Hadian’s supervisor and the two Iranians started to work together closely. Their co-authored papers appeared in top engineering journals on topics such as the water footprint of energy policies, energy efficiency and sustainable planning. 

“I found him a demanding professor who holds himself to very high standards and sets high expectations for his students from ethical, professional, and technical perspectives,” Hadian said.

For Hadian, Rouhani’s appointment of Kaveh Madani was more than just a personal decision. “I think this administration has stepped up on opening the doors for talented people like Kaveh,” he said. “There is a big number of Iranians out there, myself included, looking forward to coming back and serving their country if given a chance.”

Madani has voiced similar hopes. “There are a lot of people abroad, waiting and watching closely to see what’s going to happen,” he told Tehran’s English-language daily Tehran Times. “If I succeed, we might see more people coming back to help the government.”

He was clearly optimistic about his chances in Iran. His parents had opposed his return to Iran since, as he told the well-known reformist newspaper Shargh, “they thought many things were different there when it came to politics and government.” On social media, many also opposed his return and were skeptical of his chances of success in Iranian government. They were called pessimists and skeptics; Now, with Madani behind the bars less than six months after his return to serve the country of his birth, they seem to have been vindicated.




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