Australian population specialist arrested by Iran for spying
Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi is just the latest foreign national to be arrested in Iran
Iran has arrested an Australian fertility expert, accusing her of working with foreign “espionage networks” to downplay the country’s population crisis.
Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi was detained as she was leaving Iran, the state news agency IRNA said.
She is listed by the University of Melbourne as working at its School of Population and Global Health and has published widely on Iran’s once-lauded fertility and family-planning policies.
A University of Melbourne spokesperson told Australia’s Sunday Morning Herald newspaper that reports of Dr Hosseini-Chavoshi’s detention were “deeply concerning”.
On Saturday, hardline newspaper Kayhan reported the arrest of several population “activists… who, under the cover of scientific activities, had infiltrated state bodies”.
It said they manipulated statistics and handed sensitive information to Iran’s enemies as part of efforts at “cultural and social invasion”.
Asked about reports that several experts advocating population curbs had been arrested, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei told reporters on Sunday:
“One person has been arrested in this regard … and three or four people are being sought,” the judiciary’s news website Mizan reported. Mr Ejei gave no further details.
IRNA said last week there were reports that authorities had detained an Australian-based population expert on charges that she had tried to “infiltrate” state bodies in Iran.
The news agency quoted an attorney as naming the detained woman as Dr Hosseini-Chavoshi but said she did not yet have a lawyer.
Iran was once considered an international success story in population control, bringing birth rates down from seven per woman in the 1980s to 1.66 in 2016, according to World Bank figures.
Then-health minister Alireza Marandi received the United Nations Population Award in 2000 for his family planning initiatives, which had to overcome entrenched taboos in an Islamic society.
Dr Hosseini-Chavoshi has written extensively about these efforts, which she described as the “fastest fall in fertility ever recorded” in a 2009 book.
But there has lately been concern that Iran overshot its target, with the number of births falling well below the level needed to keep the population growing.
In 2012, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said it was a mistake to have continued the family planning policies of the 1990s, and called for new measures to double the population to 150 million.
In October, Mr Khamenei called for increased efforts to combat enemy “infiltration” as tensions escalated with the United States after Washington withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran.
Kayhan said Dr Hosseini-Chavoshi held dual Australian and Iranian nationality and was detained by security forces in a drive against “enemy infiltration elements” as she was leaving Iran.
“There is evidence these individuals are connected to Western espionage networks,” Nasrollah Pejmanfar, a member of parliament’s cultural commission, told the newspaper.
As of 2017, reports indicated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had arrested at least 30 dual nationals in recent years, mostly on espionage charges.
Iran does not recognize dual nationality and does not routinely announce arrests or charges of dual nationals, whose rights to consular assistance are enshrined in the UN Vienna Convention.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was offering assistance to the family of an national “who has been detained in Iran”.
Iran is still holding a number of other western academics, journalists and tourists and while they regularly claim they are engaging in espionage or other similar charges, Tehran has been accused of detaining foreign nationals in a bid to extract concessions.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Iran was detaining innocent people as “an instrument of diplomatic leverage,” after pressing the case of a British-Iranian woman jailed in Tehran.
British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is held by Tehran on charges of sedition.
“It is unacceptable for the Iranian regime to punish innocent people because of commercial decisions, trade decisions, diplomatic decisions that they don’t like,” he said in September.
He warned of consequences if Iran did not release Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.