Previously: Drugs in Iran: A New IranWire Series
The illicit drugs trade in Iran has shaped countless lives, exacerbated by punitive and misguided policies that have left some of society’s most vulnerable in the cold. In an exclusive new series for IranWire, academic Dariush Farahani lifts the lid on an under-reported contemporary crisis.
The aim of this series is to provide an insight into the drugs trade in Iran, including the impact of government policy on the drugs market, and to give a voice to marginalized communities affected by drugs that have been demonized in the media and public discourse.
Across the world and not least in Iran, drug users have been criminalized, stigmatized and treated as sick and malformed elements on the margins of society — a stance that strips them of their humanity and justifies harsh interventions into their lives. In recent years the so-called global “War on Drugs” has been questioned by an increasing number of actors. New human-centered and human rights-oriented policies and interventions are urgently needed to protect the rights of these individuals, and to prevent drug policy from further exacerbating violence, insecurity, and poor health outcomes in affected communities.
This series brings the global drug policy debate to Iran. We begin with an exploration of global drug policy before examining Iranian domestic drug policy in closer detail. Follow-up articles take in the breadth of drug users’ lived experiences in Iran and the haphazard management by government and civil society actors, based on interviews with people in Iran affected by drugs, be it as a user of opium, heroin or methamphetamine (shisheh), or by their involvement in the production, trafficking or distribution of illegal substances.
In its treatment of those involved in the drug trade, the post-1979 Islamic Republic of Iran betrayed the ideals it was founded upon. In the second instalment of a series for IranWire, Dariush Farahani learns how one young man was seduced into dealing heroin – and how a corrupt prison culture has allowed drug dependency to thrive.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution was of the most important events of the 20th century, reshaping the political geography of the Middle East and the world. It signified a violent break from the reign and politics of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with the policies of the past remoulded to fit a new, ideological narrative.
The language that dominated politics at the time has been termed the “downtrodden discourse”. In this period, the Iranian state sought to reform itself in the name of improving the economic and social conditions of the “poor and deprived”: those left behind by the Shah’s modernisation project and the so-called “Westoxication” of Iran. This required the formulation of new, “sacred” categories of citizens: veterans of the Iraq War and martyrs’ families, as well as members of the religious establishment, government supporters and others.
At the same time an internal enemy needed to be identified, to demarcate the line between the righteous Iranian citizenry and moral corruptors. Drug users and other such “deviants” have proved useful political scapegoats over the past century, diverting attention away from other policy tussles and the shortcomings of the political elite. In the aftermath of the Revolution the issue of drug dependency in Iran was closely tied to conspiracy theories surrounding attempts by the West to undermine the newly formed Islamic Republic.
The narrative of sodagaran-e marg – or the “merchants of death”, drug sellers and traffickers – permeated all spheres of public life. A powerful state propaganda machine sought to demonise all individuals involved in using, dealing, or trafficking drugs, subjecting anyone found with drugs in their possession to draconian sentences.
In the months and years that followed the Revolution, thousands were executed and disappeared for a range of so-called crimes against the state. These included individuals convicted for non-political crimes: many of a decidedly non-violent nature, such as drug use.
What the fledgling state failed to recognise was that many of those involved with drugs were the very “poor and deprived” it had committed to saving from despair. In fact, the policies of the new Iranian state served to further thrust already deprived communities deeper into never-ending cycles of poverty and insecurity.
One of the individuals the new regime was expected to lift out of despair was Kurush. At the time of the revolution, Kurush was in his twenties, having grown up in southern Tehran in an impoverished Turkmen household. Shortly after the Revolution he was arrested for selling heroin, as one of his customers had been forced to give up his dealer’s name.
Kurush narrowly escaped the death penalty as no drugs were found on his person or in his home. Instead he was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to ten years in jail.
At his sister’s home in Tehran, Kurush agrees to talk about what happened during his arrest, trial, and subsequent early release from prison: a reprieve he attributes to having joined the prison choir, and against all the odds, having avoided drugs in prison.
“Two years after the revolution,” Kurush begins, “I was caught dealing heroin.
“I worked as a painter and lived with my father, mother, younger brother, wife and two children. There were lots of drugs about but very little information about them where we grew up. We were very poor. My dream was to have enough money to buy a home for my family.
“There were many addicts and drug traffickers and sellers in our neighbourhood. One day, one of my friends said: ‘Let’s go to Urumie.’
“We went to a small village outside the city of Urumie, where they produced heroin. After we met with them, they told us to go back to Urumie and said: ‘Tomorrow we will bring you the stuff and you will take it to Tehran and sell it there. I was very afraid.
“By the time I was arrested I had been selling heroin for five to six months. Usually I sold [in units of] between 50 and 100 grams, and through this had got to know some of the bigger people in the trade. One day, I sold 100 grams to a client. He was arrested and forced to tell the police where he bought his heroin.
“[At the time] I was renovating the house and the door to our yard was open. I could hear someone asking for ‘Agha Kurush’; I was dressed in my work clothes as I was painting. They were plainclothes officers from Tehran Police. They tricked me into coming out, and into showing them that I was indeed Kurush, then arrested me and searched the house. They had taken down the serial number of the money given to me by the informant and matched it to the cash they found.
“Luckily they only found money in my home. None of my family knew what I was doing, except for my wife, who had suspected it but never talked about it.
“When they took me I was afraid, because I knew they beat people.”
This was not Kurush’s first run-in with the law. A year before he was arrested for selling heroin, very shortly after the revolution, Kurush had been sent to Evin Prison on bogus charges of having ‘disturbed the wives of the Basij’ after standing up to a group of Basij members harassing people in his area.
This event would prove decisive in his involvement with heroin, as his family then had to survive without his income over the several months he spent in jail. Paradoxically, the lack of equitable justice Kurush experienced became an important factor in his later decision to sell drugs.
“At the time,” he goes on, “If what they were charging me for had been true, they would have executed me. Nevertheless, they sent me to Evin and I went through some real beatings in that process.
“When my sister and her husband came to pick me up from jail a few months later, having helped secure my release, they asked me to sign a letter of confession for my crimes. It stated that I had disrespected and annoyed the wives of the Basij and pulled a knife in a fight, among other despicable acts.
“My sister’s husband objected to this. He told the officers: ‘You have seen this man, these are false accusations! He is not going to sign this’. They answered: ‘Either he signs it and we let him go, or we take both of you’.
“Before he could get us into more trouble, I just signed the paper.”
At this point in the discussion Kurush’s sister, Golnar, who has been in a side room, walks past and interjects.
“I didn’t know,” she tells me. “I thought he was only a painter. None of us knew.
“As soon as he was taken, we went to the police station and found him there in handcuffs, chained together with three others [Kurush later explains that the four were part of the same drug-selling group].
Golnar continues: “He told us to leave because we did not know the story; he had to fix this himself. He was sent to the Revolutionary Court. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were doing this?’.
“As I went home to see his wife, there was a ring at the door. ‘Is Agha Kurush here?’, a man asked. I told him: ‘No, they’ve taken him away’.
“The man responded: ‘I gave him money for mavad. I want my drugs’. I told him to leave and he did – but he came back later, asking for his drugs again. He looked like an addict, but I realised afterwards that he could have been a police officer. We were in shock at the time and were not thinking straight.”
Golnar and Kurush’s wife Amira later inspected the kitchen, down in the basement of the house, and found a small bag of heroin in the boiler. Had the police brought a sniffer dog or looked more closely, it would have sealed Kurush’s fate.
They handed the drugs over to the man at the door and told him to leave – again, Golnar recounts with horror, without considering whether he could have been an undercover officer.
She takes her leave, and Kurush continues his story. He was held at the Revolutionary Court for a month and was beaten and tortured for information on where the drugs had come from. But he and the others “stuck to their story”, he says, and told officers it had been their first time dealing. Eventually, he received a 10-year prison sentence.
Asked about how he was tortured, Kurush tells me: “We called it Joojeh Kebab-style.
“They take a long rod and make you crouch, with hands cuffed. The rod goes under your knees and they place you on two tables so that your weight makes your feet go up in the air and your head is pointing down towards the floor.
“They used cables to beat my feet and body. Once during torture, they broke my teeth.
“The way in which the police operated was that they got one person to confess; that person would give the name of the next person involved, who would give the name of another, and so on. This way, what started with an arrest for one gram of drugs led all the way up to 100 kilos. When I was in pre-trial detention, 30 people involved in the same supply chain had all been caught this way and given up one another. In the end, they executed all of them.
“Ultimately, I was sent to jail. I saw so many drugs in prison: sale and consumption. Guards brought them in, or prisoners swallowed condoms with drugs inside and brought them in during their temporary release to see their family.”
Kurush was able to get his own sentence significantly shortened through good behaviour and, in a stroke of luck, by joining the prison’s “revolutionary choir”.
“We would sing Basiji and other revolutionary songs,” he explains. “One day the head of the choir came down as we were being filmed singing. He was so happy with our performance that he said that he would pardon all of us. And so, my sentence was shortened from 10 years to less than three
“A man at the prison interviewed me before my release. He asked me: ‘Why did you get into this stuff?’. I replied: ‘Poverty’.”
One morning, Kurush says, the prison wardens came to tell him he was free. That night his was the third name to be called for release on the prison intercom system.
“I cried when I heard my name,” he said. “I have never told anyone else about this whole story, not even my sister. When I was freed, I never looked back.”
“My reputation was in tatters. If we had not had my father’s home to live in, I’m not sure what would have happened to my family. Even if I die from hunger, I promised myself I would never get involved in these things again. Even if I do not earn much money, I will never go back.”
Kurush’s prison wing had been a special one for drug offenders. Of the hundreds locked up there, he says, almost all of became addicted to drugs while inside if they had not been already. He was one of the few that did not.
“Outside of jail,” he says, “you have to wait a while before you can get your hands on drugs. In prison it was right then and there. You asked someone and they gave it straight to you.
“They tried to get me to swallow a few hundred grams and bring them back inside when I was on temporary leave. I said I wasn’t interested. Men sold themselves in jail for drugs.
“They have conjugal visits, with a special room which couples use to have sex. The wife would come over for two days, for example, and smuggle drugs inside, having swallowed them. They asked me if I wanted to have the room for my wife but I did not want her to come here and see the environment, so I turned the offer down.
“One man told his wife to bring money to prison for him to buy heroin on the inside. His wife said they did not have any money and asked her husband: ‘Do you want me to have to sell myself for this?’ – at which point, the man replied that she should, if that would raise the money.
“During the month at the Revolutionary Court they had told my father and my wife that they would release me if I went and bought one or two kilos of heroin, to identify the people who were supplying us. They tried to get my father to convince me. When he tried, I told him he did not understand; this would be like tying the noose around my own neck.
“Many of those who came out of jail were just beginning their criminal careers. The others that I got caught with continued when they got out.”
Asked where the current problems related to drugs in Iran are coming from, Kurush replies: “The system is corrupt. Below the Pol-e Modiriat overpass in Tehran, they say they sell 15 kilos of meth and heroin there eery day. The ones who run the place give 30 million toman to police each week to leave them alone. Every now and again police arrest 30 or 40 addicts, but this is just for show.”
As soon as Kurush got out of prison, he bought a new car and began working as a taxi driver, which he has done ever since. He has never touched drugs himself.
“The other week,” he recalls, “a lady got in the back. She was a young and pretty girl. She told me to give her 100,000 toman, and we go and buy shisheh [methamphetamine], and that I could then have her until the morning.
“Another girl took out a meth pipe and started smoking in the back of my car. I said: ‘What are you doing?’ and she answered, ‘You just focus on driving’.””
We sit down and begin peeling cloves of garlic by hand, to be pickled in large glass jars with vinegar. As we work, Kurush begins to recount a final – more recent – brush with the law.
“A couple of years ago,” he tells me, “I got caught under a bridge here in Tehran drinking alcohol with a few of my taxi rank colleagues. Luckily they didn’t find out we were taxi drivers; if they had they would have taken away our licenses = and cars. I was faced with two options: jail and a heavy fine, or 80 lashes.
“They had this bed where they restrained people, face down. It was myself and a colleague there. I told them: ‘Look, you don’t need to tie my hands’. They answered, ‘But you’ll try to run away if we don’t’, and I told them: ‘You can trust me, I won’t’.
“I persevered from the first lash to the eightieth. My friend said they shouldn’t tie his hands either, but after the first lashing, he screamed and tried to run away. They caught him, of course, and gave him a real beating, kicking and punching him.
“Afterwards, they asked me: ‘How did you not make a single sound?’. I told them: ‘That was nothing. I was in Evin.’”
Also in the series: