Manufacturing spies: Iran’s campaign against ‘infiltration’

Iranian security forces are accusing innocent academics of being spies to cover up their own failures and insecurities.

Ayatollah Khamenei - AP
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with government officials in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 23, 2018 [Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP]

Around two weeks ago, in a move that caught many by surprise, Iran’s security forces arrested Iranian-Australian academic Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshia widely respected population researcher at the University of Melbourne, as she was leaving Iran. They also summoned her colleague, Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, who is a professor of demography at the University of Tehran and director of Iran’s National Institute of Population Research, for questioning.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA said Hosseini-Chavoshi and Abbasi-Shavazi, who had previously conducted research on population growth and fertility in Iran, were charged with “espionage” and intrusion “in the area of population control”. Iranian media reported that the scientists were allegedly producing false statistics about the rate of fertility in Iran in an attempt to obscure its “population crisis“. 

Population control has become a sensitive issue in Iran since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for population increase in a key speech in 2012, deeming Iran’s decades-long, state-sponsored birth control policy a “mistake”. Under his leadership, the state is now encouraging Iranians to have as many children as possible in a bid to increase the country’s population from around 81 to 150- 200 million in the near future. 

Abbasi-Shavazi and Hosseini-Chavoshi’s joint book on the country’s demographic challenges named “The Fertility Transition in Iran” won the International Book of the Year award offered by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, in 2010. However, both scientists experienced a sudden fall from grace in the following years, seemingly due to discrepancies between their policy recommendations about fertility management and the official decision to double Iran’s population. 

Once celebrated as esteemed experts, they are now branded “spies” and national security “threats” by the state, only because their scientific findings and opinions do not seem to fall in line with the government’s policy plans.

Manufacturing spies

Like any other state, Iran’s security and intelligence apparatuses are working hard to prevent foreign espionage. After all, the embarrassing theft in early 2018 of Iran’s huge archive of nuclear plans by Israel-affiliated agents would not have been possible without foreign infiltration.

However, the Islamic Republic’s campaign against infiltration and espionage, which was launched following a warning by Ayatollah Khamenei in November 2015, has reached extraordinary proportions, leading to what could well be described as manufacturing of spies for political purposes.

Accusing academics and experts like Hosseini-Chavoshi and Abbasi-Shavazi of being “spies” because they hold views that contradict state ideology and official policy is not uncommon in today’s Iran. 

For example, Kaveh Madani, a highly accomplished environmental scientist at Imperial College London and former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, was forced to leave Iran in April, out of concerns he might be branded an “infiltrator” or “spy” by Iran’s security forces and end up in jail.

Iran’s “intelligence folks … are very sensitive about foreign-based experts who get too close to the decision-makers and earn their trust”, Madani told me. “This becomes problematic, especially when the foreign-based researcher’s findings or opinions are in conflict with the narrative and ideological beliefs of the Islamic Republic”. He added that members of Iran’s conservative security and intelligence community are afraid that Iranian experts with foreign affiliations could try to convince Iran’s top-level decision-makers to make major reforms.  

In January 2018, Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian tenured professor of political sociology at Imam Sadiq University who was my thesis adviser at the University of Tehran, was detained on suspicion of working as a spy under the guise of environmental activism. He was passionate about the environment and served on the executive board of Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an environmental conservation NGO he had helped found. Seyed-Emami suspiciously died in the Evin Prison in Tehran shortly after his detention. Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor general, said the scientist “committed suicide after confessing his crimes while in prison”. The spying allegations and the claim that he had committed suicide has been rejected by his family and colleagues.


“My dad voted every election cycle, promoted active participation, was vehemently against war and sanctions and cared genuinely about Iran, its environment, and its people”, his son Mehran told me. He added that “his students, colleagues, fellow academics and friends knew exactly where he stood”.

I too knew how much Seyed-Emami cared about his country. We had several critical conversations on US and EU sanctions against Tehran, which he deemed “unhelpful and unreasonable”. Moreover, he publicly spoke about the foreign threats against Iran as recently as in March 2017 and emphasised the need to boost Iran’s “defence capabilities” to deter possible military action against it. But when security forces decided that he was “a spy”, Seyed-Emami’s apparent patriotism proved insufficient to save his life.

Scapegoating academics

In some cases, the branding of certain Iranian academics as “spies” is not even based on the perceived ideological differences they have with the country’s leadership. At times, the Iranian security apparatus appears to use innocent academics as scapegoats to cover up its own security failures. They are also known to accuse academics who refuse to spy for Tehran of being spies for the enemy.

The case of Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish medical doctor and lecturer at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who was apprehended in April 2016 and later sentenced to death for spying for Israel, can be viewed as a possible example of this.

In December 2017, Iranian state television aired a report in which Jalali, who previously worked on a project for Iran’s Defence Ministry, confessed to relaying information to a foreign intelligence service about Iranian nuclear scientists. His family, supporters and several international NGOs believe Jalali was forced to read the confession. Later on, Jalali himself sent out an audio recording from inside the Evin Prison, repudiating the confessions as coerced.

His wife, Vida Mehrannia, believes the state is using her husband as a scapegoat to cover up security failures that allowed Mossad to assassinate several senior nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. 

“The state is victimizing an innocent person and branding him a criminal to justify security breaches and intelligence failures that led to the assassination of nuclear scientists,” she told me, “the timing of the alleged espionage activities of Ahmad Reza do not even logically correspond to that of those assassinations”.

She added that by sentencing her husband to death, the state is also aiming to “terrorise other researchers working with state organisations into complete obedience”. In late 2017, Jalali claimed in a letter he wrote in Evin Prison that he was jailed after declining to spy for Iranian intelligence services.

Jalali is not the only scientist to claim that he has been targeted for refusing to work for Iranian intelligence. Hamid Babaei, an Iranian doctoral student of finance at the University of Liege in Belgium, also claimed that he has been jailed for refusing to operate as an informant for Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. Babaei was sentenced to 6 years in jail in December 2013 for allegedly “acting against national security by communicating with a hostile government”.

Other foreign-based or dual-national Iranian experts and specialists who have been targeted over the past years on suspicion of “espionage”, “infiltration” or “soft subversion” include Abbas Edalat, professor of mathematics at Imperial College London; Omid Kokabee, a laser physicist at the University of Texas; Kamiar and Arash Alaei, both medical doctors and internationally renowned AIDS specialists; Haleh Esfandiari, former director of Middle East programme at Woodrow Wilson Center; Homa Hoodfar, Iranian-Canadian anthropologist; Kian Tajbakhsh, Iranian-American scholar of urban planning; and Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian-Canadian philosopher. 

The Iranian establishment’s ongoing campaign against academics with foreign affiliations is a reflection of its widening threat perception and growing insecurities. Amid increasing foreign pressures and deepening divisions within the state, Iranian security forces are manufacturing “spies” not only to excuse their own failures but also to calm their fears about science-based views that could challenge and potentially undermine the political and ideological pillars of the Islamic Republic. 

Hosseini-Chavoshi and Abbasi-Shavazi were not the first victims of Iran’s disproportionate and at times delusional campaign against “infiltration” and, unless we witness some fundamental changes at the core of the Islamic Republic, they are unlikely to be the last. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.