President Hassan Rouhani attends an annual Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran on Nov. 24. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Global Opinions writer

Environmentalists are the latest target of crackdowns by a powerful yet paranoid faction of the Iranian regime that seems to believe that progress of any kind is a threat to the Islamic Republic’s national security. This assault on science is the most ridiculous of many such campaigns conducted by hardliners in the past, but the stakes, arguably, have never been higher.

Several conservationists were arrested earlier this year. One of them — Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian national — died mysteriously after several weeks in custody. Iranian authorities say he died by suicide, but few are convinced.

His death rightly unleashed an uproar. Yet several other activists who were arrested with Seyed-Emami are still behind bars, and his wife has been blocked from leaving Iran.

Now a group of some of the world’s most respected scientists and conservationists, led by Jane Goodall, are calling on Iran’s government to free the detained environmentalists.

The public charges being leveled against the researchers is that they used camera traps, designed to capture footage of endangered animals (in this case the Asiatic cheetah), to covertly spy on Iran’s ballistic missiles program for the CIA and Mossad.

No one is buying that cover story. The argument is as implausible as it is unsophisticated — both characteristics of the approach used by the hard-line group behind the arrests.

The case against the environmentalists is the latest example of the intelligence wing of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — the same group responsible for my arrest and other recent detentions of dual nationals, journalists, educators, and even Iranian diplomats and officials — escalating its undeclared war on curiosity and scientific inquiry. Its campaigns invariably sweep up people with connections to the world beyond Iran’s borders, as well as anyone exposing hard to accept realities of life in the country the group claims to protect.

Iran is facing a major environmental crises that can no longer be ignored. The diversion of rivers and the emptying of lakes for irrigation purposes have afflicted the country for decades. But now the effects of such mismanagement — such as the creeping desertification of the country — have become too blatant for most Iranians to overlook.

Regular sand and dust storms and choking air pollution are ubiquitous elements of the modern Iranian experience.

Clerics with influential public pulpits often blame these natural disasters, along with Iran’s many earthquakes, on a God angry with the local population — especially women — and their increasingly secular and Westernized ways.

The growing consensus among the international scientific community, though, is that Iran’s leaders — responsible for years of waste, mismanagement and corruption — are the root cause of the country’s environmental woes. Scientists are helping to debunk dangerous myths for a public grown weary of religion being used to explain every daily issue.

The regime finds itself in a difficult predicament as it is invested heavily in scientific research and education (albeit selectively).

These environmentalists are the ideal fall guy for the regime’s sycophants who — in addition to their hold on many sectors of the economy — are in increasingly exerting control over an already farcically corrupt judiciary.

In recent years, more and more Iranians of wealth and privilege have managed to go overseas for education, who then benefit from access to international capital and relative freedom of travel. The Revolutionary Guards' hard-liners see these elites as their main nemesis. In fact, however, Iranians living in the country and those Iranians with one foot in the successful and growing diaspora have aspirations for the country’s future that are more similar to average Iranians at home than they have been in the Islamic Republic’s roughly 40-year history.

They want to see relationships between their homeland and their adopted countries that are mutually beneficial. Many see opportunity in Iran, and others see ways they can help.

The epic brain drain that Iran experienced beginning in the 1990s inevitably led to a return home of some Iranians following the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 as he promised a more open society with greater connections to the world. The implementation of the nuclear deal with world powers helped push that trend even further. This, in turn, raised the Revolutionary Guards' already high level of paranoia.

Fast forward a few years, and those individuals are gradually being eliminated.

They include people such as Kaveh Madani, a U.K.-educated scientist with a position at Imperial College in London, who returned to his native Iran on an invitation from the president’s office to become the deputy chief of environmental affairs. Soon after arriving, though, he came under increasing pressure and was ultimately pressured to leave.

Of the many promises Rouhani has failed to fulfill, safeguarding the environment may be the most pressing. This is an issue on which the Iranian leadership should have been able to come to a consensus even with internal rivals. Madani’s predicament, as well as the continued detention of innocent environmentalists on charges that could carry the death penalty, are all clear reminders that the Iranian political establishment is putting its own longevity above all else.

It’s a war of attrition that, in the long run, the regime’s most thuggish bullies can’t win: The environmental problems are impossible to resolve without expertise and management that Iran still lacks, and in the end, they will have to allow for nonnative assistance, most likely from the Iranian diaspora.

Before that happens, though, this needless struggle will have many more victims and far-reaching destructive effects that will make an already isolated Iran even harder to live in — let alone being a place where people can breathe.