Forbidden Drink: Why Alcoholism Is Soaring in Officially Booze-Free Iran

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With a worsening economy, thriving black market, and prohibition-enforced absence of social norms, Iranians' heavy drinking may be turning into a public health crisis.

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Smugglers along the Iran-Iraq border carry cases of liquor and beer. (AP)

The Islamic Republic of Iran takes its ban on alcohol, which goes back to a few months after the 1979 revolution, so seriously that taking a drink here can get you publicly whipped. Last week, one Iranian couple, who had endured 80 lashes each on their first and second alcohol convictions, got the death sentence for their third.

But Iranians still drink. They drink smuggled booze -- an estimated 60 to 80 million liters came over the border last year alone, mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan -- and they drink homemade booze, often the ouzo-meets-moonshine aragh saghi, made from raisins. They drink at home, drink at the corner shops that double as clandestine liquor stores, and apparently they drink behind the wheel: when Tehran police administered random alcohol tests to city drivers, a staggering 26 percent turned out to be drunk.

So many Iranians drink to excess that health officials there are now warning of a national threat to public health, citing a spike in alcohol-related ailments. Police are confiscating 69 percent more alcohol than they did last year, according to an Iranian newspaper.

"We should be sensitive about this issue and pay attention to it even more than we do to other ailments, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases," Iran's deputy health minister said, a statement that seems as much aimed at reactionary hard-liners in the government as at regular citizens. That an official would publicly acknowledge the scale of the problem is, in itself, a sign of the severity: police will crack down on individuals but prefer not to admit how widespread alcoholism has become, the BBC notes in reporting on the announcement, because of how politically sensitive the issue can be.

Why are Iranians such heavy drinkers? After all, not only are they deterred by the lash, but they're deeply religious: a 2008 Gallup poll found that Iranians overwhelmingly support sharia law, which forbids alcohol consumption. You might say that there are three schools of thought: it's a way of coping with the disastrous economy and politics, a byproduct of the increasingly Westernized youth, or, perhaps most convincingly, an indication of what prohibition can mean for the social norms that typically keep us from having a third shot before lunchtime.

Could you really blame Iranians, who face international isolation, a cruelly oppressive regime, soaring food prices, and the threat of war, for wanting an extra drink? "Personal reasons are the most important factors which lead to the spread of alcohol consumption in society," Iran's deputy health minister said in his public statement on the rise of alcoholism. "Some think this is a way [to cope] with their frustrations." The head of Iran's Social Work Society explained to Radio Liberty, "We live in a society where there is economic pressure, social problems, and high inflation. People escape with alcohol to alleviate the pain."

Most Iranians are under 35, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them, especially in cities, are fond of Western culture and Western habits, which includes imbibing. "In many of the country's major cities, where residents listen to popular music, use social media, and watch satellite television -- all behind closed doors -- the black market for booze continues to boom," Omed Memarian wrote at the Daily Beast, calling the bottle another front in the Iranian "culture war" over Western influence.

Still, there seems to be something particular to Iranian drinking habits -- the popularity of Western culture might explain the presence of alcohol, and the poor economy could be linked to the rising rates of alcoholism, but neither fully explains how Iranians drink. For that, the prohibition itself might be to blame.

A 2006 travelogue from "the Inebriated Republic of Iran" in Modern Drunkard magazine (not the most rigorous source, to be sure, so I spoke with the author to confirm his account) toured with some of "underground boozers" who seem to be everywhere. With "a wink and a nod," a copy store clerk becomes bar tender, or a stranger becomes a drinking buddy. The author, a Westerner who has reported form inside Iran, explained to me that the prohibition can at times lead Iranians to drink more heavily and with more gusto for the secrecy and taboo of it. As he put it in the 2006 article, written before the Iranian economy got quite as bad as it is today, "Where liquor stores are outlawed, everywhere is a potential liquor store."

Alcohol consumption in Western countries is moderated by laws, sure, but also by social norms that regulate when it's OK to drink and how much. But, in a country like Iran where drinking is always illegal and always taboo, there's less of a distinction between one drink and three, between drinking at ten in the morning or ten at night, before work or after work, at a restaurant or in the back room of an office supply store that also sells smuggled Turkish beers.

Whatever the reason, even as the Islamic Republic forbids drinking, some of the regime's most hard-line factions might be profiting from the enormous black market trade. Analysts have long suspected that the powerful, shadowy Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps dominate the lucrative smuggling routes in and out of Iran, including the path across Iraqi Kurdistan, over which most foreign booze flows.

"The relative ease of obtaining alcohol -- and the vast quantities available -- have led many analysts to believe that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and other elements of the government actually profit from the illicit trade, among other banned industries," Memarian wrote, noting that an apparently disapproving Iranian member of Parliament had even hinted as much.

Memarian also quotes a Dubai-based exporter as saying that most of the "huge" market for smuggling alcohol into Iran goes through government hands. Paradoxically, this is the same regime -- although through different branches -- that, as part of a nationwide crackdown on imbibing, sentenced two Iranians to death for drinking. It's one of the many contradictions of Iran's theocratic, authoritarian rule over a devoutly Islamic, Western culture-loving society. Just trying to puzzle it out is enough to make you want a drink.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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