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Hardliners Target Iran's Female Environment Chief

TEHRAN — While the moderate government headed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani enjoys the Supreme Leader's qualified backing — which is crucial to its survival inside Iran — it contends daily with criticisms, often from its conservative opponents. The conservatives fear that his policy of bringing détente with the West and opening the economy will dilute the country's Islamic and revolutionary fervor, though their hostility is often personal, and usually focuses on easier prey than the president, namely his colleagues.

It is a familiar pattern established in the 1990s, when a conservative parliament impeached several ministers of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. And those who prompt this hostility usually do so for similar reasons — "too liberal" leanings, a high profile, suspected popularity.

The latest target is the female vice president and head of Iran's state environmental agency, Masoumeh Ebtekar. She has been a prominent reformist for years, and headed the same body under Khatami. Certain reformist papers are characterizing her as the new "target" of hardline media.

The newspaper Arman-e Emrooz observed this week that hardliners have a problem "in two words, Ma'sumeh Ebtekar," and seem indifferent to her environmental work and indeed the state of the environment itself. On Oct. 26, several lawmakers reportedly urged her not to meddle in politics and called on Rouhani to deal with her organization's "problems." In recent days conservative media have been giving exaggerated coverage to a smallish protest by her organization"s employees outside its offices, apparently over work conditions. As Arman observed, these problems were nothing new and the hostile media omitted showing protesters' placards stating that "this is not a political gathering."

The environmental agency's Twitter account noted on Oct. 27 that right-wing media like Fars news agency were "suddenly" concerned by the environment. The Fars report on the protest carried said that it was "shaking" Ebtekar's "empire" at the agency. Sharq, another reformist daily, carried an extensive report about what the environment department has accomplished in recent years, including a rapid campaign to introduce hyper-efficient irrigation methods in northwestern Iran, where water is scarce, and moves to mitigate Tehran's appalling air pollution.

The issue is no doubt political. Hardliners likely perceive Ebtekar as the kind of semi-liberal figure — and a woman — they hate to see wielding power. Perhaps her loyalties are in doubt? Her recent comments to Spain's El Mundo are ambivalent in places. Asked if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Iran firmly defends, would one day have to answer for the deaths of civilians, she says "all politicians, each and every one," will have to answer for their deeds. Should he be taken to a war crimes tribunal, the daily asks? "We shall all be judged one day," she says, stating a posture that has religious connotations but is also somehow awkward.

That must be her irksome political meddling.

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