On Tuesday, it was widely reported, and with a tone of some ridicule, that the top military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had accused Western intelligence services of using lizards to spy on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The New York Post was among the outlets to quote Hassan Firouzabadi as saying that “a variety of reptile desert” had been found in the possession of visitors who planned to use the creatures’ skin to “attract atomic waves” in order to discover information like the location of uranium mines.
The comments seemed to have been highlighted in Western media as an amusing example either or the Iranian regime’s paranoia or its far-reaching propaganda, or both. But Firouzabadi also helped to highlight the often deadly consequences of those phenomena, insofar as his remarks sought to justify a recent crackdown on environmental activists, which resulted in the arrest of at least two dual nationals, one of whom died in custody last week.
The Post pointed to this connection, reiterating the report that Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor, had been described by Iranian officials as having committed suicide following a confession of spying. His family has disputed both the criminal accusation and the official account of his death, and authorities have reportedly pressured them to bury the corpse quickly, before an independent autopsy can be performed.
Firouzabadi’s statement, in addition to articulating an implausible conspiracy theory about Western spying, appeared to lay the groundwork for further arrests and reprisals against anyone with known or suspected ties to Western countries. The former head of the Iranian military declared that those countries have often used “tourists, scientists, and environmentalists” to spy on Iran. The reference to environmentalists is especially relevant in light of Seyed-Emami’s death, which corresponded with the arrests of at least 10 figures in the Iranian environmentalist movement, some of whom had publicly criticized the government for mismanagement of the country’s water resources.
Among those arrestees was the government’s own environmental official, Kaveh Madani, who had been educated in the United States and employed in the United Kingdom. Although Madani was released after about two days, the New York Times described his arrest as another instance of security officials undermining Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s oft-repeated promises that Iranian expatriates were free to return to their homeland without fear of reprisal.
Prior to the latest round of arrests, it had been reported that at least a dozen Western nationals were in detention in Iran. While Seyed-Emami’s death prevents him from now being counted alongside them, it was revealed on Monday that an American citizen named Morad Tahbaz was among those who were detained in January for their membership in the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation.
ABC News reported upon Tahbaz’ case in the context of an article that focused on the plight of another imprisoned Iranain-American, the 81-year-old former charity worker Baquer Namazi. He has returned to the headlines several times in recent weeks as reports emerged from Iran of his worsening health condition and the authorities’ alternating denial and provision of medical attention. Namazi is serving a 10-year sentence on unsubstantiated charges of espionage, and his advocates maintain that his confinement to the harsh conditions of Evin Prison is a de fact death sentence.
Last month, Namazi was hospitalized after experiencing a severe drop in blood pressure and an erratic heartbeat. The Iranian medical examiner recommended that he receive at least three months of medical leave, but he was soon returned to prison, only to be hospitalized again days later when similar symptoms re-emerged. Various critics of the Iranian regime have suggested that the authorities are unwilling to grant him a longer release out of fear of losing a potentially important bargaining chip in talks with the West. By the same token, advocates for many of the detained dual nationals have referred to them as “hostages”.
The crackdown on dual nationals and so-called spies is an extension of national rhetoric that was put on prominent display this week amidst celebrations of the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Network reported that these celebrations included military parades and the public display of a Ghadr ballistic missile, which is reportedly capable of striking targets as far away as 2,000 kilometers, or roughly 1,240 miles.
In the wake of mass protests against the clerical regime which started in late December and were largely suppressed by mid-January, the regime’s recognition of this anniversary also included public statements that sought to downplay public unrest while laying the blame for it at the feet of “enemies” led by the United States. The MENAFN report indicated that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a self-professed moderate, had reiterated these accusations in a public speech the content of which was very similar to earlier remarks by the hardline supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Meanwhile, Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV highlighted similar statements from the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari. The hardline paramilitary leader spoke vaguely of “hostile acts by the global arrogance” aimed at creating divisions among the Iranian public. Jafari effectively blamed Western powers for “economic problems” and a range of domestic issues that were widely seen as sparking the recent protests.
Press TV tied Jafari’s statement to earlier remarks by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said that unrest and instability were created by “infiltrators” and not by the Iranian people. On one hand, such declarations seem to encourage the crackdown on returned expatriates and dual nationals. But at the same time, they also provide the regime with the cover to associate virtually all perceived threats with foreign “infiltration”.
Accordingly, the longstanding crackdown on dual nationals has reportedly coincided with a broader crackdown on dissent, which predictably intensified in the wake of the December and January protests. An estimated 8,000 people were arrested for participation in those demonstrations, and a dozen have reportedly been killed under torture. Additionally, some 50 individuals were shot dead while the protests were still ongoing.
Subsequent enforcement activities have focused not only on participants in that uprising but also on political dissidents in general, and not only on them but also on their families. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported on Tuesday that the mothers of two prominent women’s rights activists and political prisoners and the sister of one of them had been arrested following a rally outside Evin Prison. One of those activists, Atena Daemi, is reportedly in extremely poor health more than 10 days after beginning a hunger strike in protest against her arbitrary transfer to the unsafe and unhygienic conditions of a facility that is otherwise dedicated to the incarceration of violent criminals.
Following the suppression of the nationwide protests, there have been numerous reports of authorities arresting or otherwise exerting pressure on the families of political and social activists, often as part of efforts to either compel them to present themselves to authorities. Meanwhile, the regime has sought to discredit many of those activists who have already been detained, in some cases by portraying them as drug addicts and in some cases by asserting connections to Western intelligence agencies, as in the case of Seyed-Emami and his fellow environmental activists.