How Iran is destroying its once thriving environmental movement

Iran once boasted one of the greenest governments. But persecution, paranoia, and war have sunk the Middle East’s most vital conservation programs.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A cheetah research team hikes through the deserts of Naybandan Wildlife Refuge, in Iran. The once-powerful conservationist movement has all but been destroyed over the past decades.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Just a few decades ago, Iran boasted the greenest government in the Middle East. An expansive national park network protected species found almost nowhere else in the world. The nation’s rivers delivered potable water; air pollution was minimal. But now, the parks are being subsumed by development. The country’s waterways are withering away, in no small part because neither conservationists nor campaigners dare voice their concerns about the environment for fear of retribution.

Many top wildlife biologists languish behind bars, and so some of Iran’s unique species are endangered only decades after a previous generation of conservationists had brought them back from the brink.

"Highly respected conservationists in Iran face torture, unfair trials on fabricated charges, and prolonged arbitrary detention,” says Richard Pearshouse, head of crises and environment at Amnesty International. “Iran’s revolutionary guards and courts have effectively obliterated the civic space required for legitimate wildlife conservation."

This case has swept unprecedented terror across Iranian environmentalism. Scientists and conservationists are fleeing the country in ever greater numbers, Iranians who live abroad say. Activist groups have become more risk averse than ever—so much so that some international conservation organizations say their local partners will no longer work with them.

In a measure of the fear gripping the community, several wildlife experts contacted for this article both inside and outside Iran asked that their details be deleted altogether.

Iran is far from alone in targeting its conservationists. Yet even by global standards, observers say the breadth and dark portent of the government’s most recent crackdown is worrisome. Once a pioneering movement, Iranian environmentalism has been crippled by decades of persecution, regime paranoia, and geopolitical tumult.

In 2019, regional water and environmental campaigners met outside of Iran to discuss their shared challenges. Several Iranian participants were questioned en route by their own security personnel; others’ devices were hacked in the immediate aftermath of the conference. And although invitees had been carefully vetted, two Iranians who said they were filmmakers were quickly identified as suspected informants by their countrymen.

The implication, one Iranian youth activist said, was clear: “No matter where you go, they’ll find us,” he said. “They’re showing that nowhere is safe.”

How did it come to this? How did being an environmentalist in Iran become so perilous? The complicated answer is wrapped up in Iran’s turbulent modern history.

Origins of a movement

The Iranian environmental movement largely owes its existence to one man: Eskandar Firouz, a charismatic aristocrat and big game hunter. Starting in the 1960s, he created what was then one of the most extensive national park networks anywhere in the world. Through the new reserves, he launched a last-ditch bid to save several species, including the Asiatic cheetah, only a few decades after Iran had lost the last of its tigers.

“Firouz was a force—you’ve got to give him credit,” says David Laylin, an ecologist who worked with him over 15 years until the 1979 revolution. “Who knows what would have become of the [Iranian] environment without him.”

Protected areas in Iran

Historic range of Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) in Iran

Firouz leveraged his close relations with the shah to keep the military off of protected lands; it was a measure of his personal clout and of environmentalism’s growing power. In an achievement of international significance, he helped orchestrate the Ramsar Convention, a treaty on the protection of wetlands, which was signed in Iran in 1971.

Through the newly created Department of the Environment (DoE), Firouz was even able to temper some of the worst consequences of rampant development, which had accelerated following the post-1973 oil boom. “Iran was absolutely unique in that time,” says Raul Valdez, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University, who worked at the DoE in the 1970s. “There was absolute respect for wildlife.”

But some Iranians were growing upset by the mostly U.S. experts the DoE used, as well as the perception that the national parks were nothing but private game reserves for the rich.

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An Asiatic cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, wanders the Miandasht Wildlife Reserve in Iran.

The DoE infuriated powerful merchants by ousting their livestock herds from what were now protected areas, and impoverished some villages by cordoning off their grazing lands. After that, many Iranians were only too happy to see the last of the conservationists.

“You can’t sugarcoat it. There was no democracy under the shah,” Laylin says. “When they found an area that was appropriate for conservation it was made by fiat into a park. People were kicked out—and kicked out without compensation. So, yeah, people were understandably angry.”

Revolution

That simmering fury finally exploded with the downfall of the monarchy and the emergence of the Islamist regime that followed. Tarred by his association with the shah, Firouz was thrown in jail, where he remained for six years. The national parks, though not rolled back, struggled on as livestock returned, to the cheetahs’ lasting detriment. Fierce sheep dogs remain some of the big cats’ most prolific killers.

Amid a brutal eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which devastated the biodiverse-rich border and led to the conscription of park rangers, conservationism slipped so far off the agenda that although the DoE survived the revolution, its first post-war head was told to shut it down.

A new and aggressive surge in development followed. Scores of dams were built on almost every river. Thousands of miles of highways were laid through almost every habitat. Unsurprisingly, there was little space for environmentalists in the new Iran. Even now, experts say the consequences of that period affect the conservation community.

“We have basically two groups of conservationists: those who worked under Firouz, and then the younger ones, like me,” says a 30-something Iranian conservationist who did not want to be named. “Between them, there’s almost no one.”

Worsening crackdown

With the natural landscape increasingly fragmented by development, protests over environmental issues began to proliferate, fueling furious security responses. In one instance in 2011, police arrested hundreds of demonstrators as they campaigned for a reversal of the development policies that they said had destroyed Iran’s biggest lake. “Lake Urmia is dying, and parliament ordered its death,” one protest slogan went.

(Learn more about Iran’s "vanishing gem.")

Wildlife conservationists found themselves under renewed fire. Among them was Hormoz Asadi, a big cat specialist who had returned to Iran to help the cheetahs after years abroad and was appointed as an advisor to the DoE. But he faced frequent monitoring and pressures, such as limits on the amount of gas he could purchase—and hence a limit on how far he could travel alone, according to his daughter.

“I find it ironic that my dad was given awards, including one from the government,” says Lobat Asadi, a writer and fellow conservationist. “Yet now conservationists are imprisoned for simply continuing the same work he was honored for.”

Meanwhile, tighter U.S.-led sanctions on Iran made it tricky for foreign donors to support environmental work in the country or for Iranians to fund their own programs, while paranoid security officials took a dimmer view of cross-border collaborations, a particular problem in this field.

“Conservationism is one of the very few disciplines that is truly international,” says Ali Aghili, an Iranian-born expert in wildlife management who now lives in the U.S. “Like it or not, you have to mix with conservationists from Europe and America—for funding, for the flow of knowledge—so maybe that’s what makes certain regimes like Iran’s uncomfortable.”

Peak repression

It wasn’t until early 2018 that Iranian environmentalists realized quite how dangerous their work had become: Security forces arrested nine of the country’s leading big cat biologists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), and sent them to the notorious Evin prison. They’re still there. One of them, Kavous Seyed-Emami, the foundation’s manager and a prominent sociologist, died soon after in circumstances that his family sees as suspicious; Abdolreza Koohpayeh, a conservationist and wildlife photographer, was released in March.

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Imprisoned conservationists from the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. Of the nine originally Imprisoned, Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody under suspicious circumstances, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh has been freed and pardoned. Pictured here are the seven researchers who remain imprisioned Top row: Morad Tahbaz, Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian Bottom row: Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sepideh Kashani with Houman Jowkar, Sam Radjabi.

Four more were initially charged with "sowing corruption on Earth," an offense that can carry the death penalty and that panicked campaigners at a time when Iran had been conducting more executions. Human rights groups suspect that Iran still is executing more prisoners.

Despite intense global lobbying and apparent efforts from within the Iranian government to alleviate their plight (a documentary that presented them as spies was taken off air just as the opening credits began to roll), the rest remain jailed.

Iranian conservationists from North America, Europe, and Australia report frequent hacking attempts and occasional death threats. Several Iraqi environmentalists who worked closely with the PWHF team have come under persistent cyber attacks from sources that they say tech experts were able to trace back to Iran.

There might be worse to come. Intensifying climate stresses, degraded soils, and rampant water mismanagement resulting in shortages have fueled rural unrest, which has focused the attention of security forces on environmental groups they’d previously ignored.

“The environment is being securitized because it’s a potential unifier,” says Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist at Yale University, who previously served as deputy head of the Iranian DoE. He fled Iran in 2018 due to security troubles. “If you talk about religion, about the hijab, you have people on both sides, but the environment unifies people. That’s why it’s a problem for part of the system.”

(Read more about the impact of drought in Iran’s driest corner.)

What’s next?

Few Iranians expect these conditions to let up any time soon. Everything from Tehran’s water quality to major river levels is effectively a state secret, dashing the hopes of independent water experts who might be able to alleviate the country’s deepening environmental crises.

As one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the region, Iran’s unique species are disappearing in a hurry, according to BirdLife International. Many of its prized birds, such as Armenian gulls and Siberian cranes, are struggling due to habitat loss and illegal hunting—as are its Caspian seals, Persian fallow deer, and Persian leopards. Iran’s Asiatic cheetahs, the last cheetahs outside of Africa, are down to a few dozen animals.

“If things continue like this, you’re going to lose the cheetah,” said George Schaller, one of world’s best known big cat experts, who’s worked in Iran on and off for 50 years. “They’re a natural treasure, and they’re almost gone.”

But if environmentalists can endure, some conservationists are hopeful of better times ahead. Despite the difficulty in campaigning, the number of small-scale NGOs has proliferated in recent years. And despite a lack of jobs, the number of wildlife professionals has, as well. After years of careful, often covert environmental activism, young Iranians have developed their own ways of getting things done.

“We know we have a history of protecting our environment,” said the activist I met at the conference last year. “We are doing the same, but we just need to be quieter than they were in the past.”