While the sale of alcohol as well as its consumption by Muslims remains illegal in Iran, the country has witnessed a rise in deaths caused by alcohol poisoning.
According to the Iranian Health Ministry, recent incidents involving the consumption of bootleg alcohol have caused more than forty deaths, as well as 460 hospitalisations in recent weeks.
The rise in deaths due to alcohol poisoning, as well as the increase in the number of people suffering from alcohol-induced blindness, shows the continued presence of alcohol consumption in Iran. This reality becomes even clearer when looking at statistics provided by Iranian anti-drug officials, which state that over 80 million litres of alcohol are smuggled to Iran every year.
The attitudes of the regime towards alcohol consumption and alcohol smuggling remain strict. Raids on private house parties have been on the rise, due to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s clamour for a renewed campaign against „social harms“ such as alcohol consumption. These party raids often gain publicity, as was the case with a party in Birjand, the capital city of the South Khorasan province, in August. By detaining 40 people for attending a mixed-gender „night party“ where alcohol was consumed, the regime seeks to uproot „social harms“.
These campaigns against vice are coupled with severe punishment for alcohol consumption by Muslims. While Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are permitted to make their own alcohol for their own consumption, all Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, punishable by 80 lashes.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have reported cases of public lashing of individuals detained for alcohol consumption. A notable example of these public lashings took place in Niazmand Square in Kashmar where a man was lashed for drinking alcohol when he was 14 or 15. This lashing served as a retroactive punishment since the supposed incidents took place roughly 10 years ago.
However, the institutionalised right of religious minorities to drink alcohol remains problematic to say the least. Indeed, as shown by the prosecution of Karen Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari, two Iranian-American Zoroastrians, being a religious minority does not fully protect them from punishment.
Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran Prosecutor-General, claimed that the couple were sentenced to 27 and 16 years for organizing „mixed-gender parties for foreign diplomats and their Iranian associates“ and for „having alcohol in their home“. While the prosecutor’s report stated that the couple had over 4 thousand litres of alcohol stored in their home, it also failed to mention their religious denomination. In a sense, this case highlights the problematic stance of religious minorities in the country.
Despite claiming that these punishments serve as a way to deal with public vice and deter the public from drinking, alcohol consumption and alcoholism remain a reality for thousands of Iranians. According to a report by the World Health Organization, 0.3 percent of Iranians suffer from alcohol dependence. Translated to numbers, this means that there are over 240 thousand individuals suffering from alcoholism in Iran. The government finally began to take steps with the opening of 150 alcohol treatment centres in 2015. Indeed, according to the former Iranian chief of police Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, “There have always been attempts to conceal alcohol-related problems in the country, but alcohol consumption and an increase in alcoholism are facts”. This statement highlights the counterproductive policy of the government, which seeks to punish rather than to provide means for treatment of alcohol dependency.
Moreover, the latest cases of alcohol poisoning show the current economic instability in Iran. Although the public campaign against alcohol smuggling was integral to the growth of a black market with bootleg alcohol, the current economic downturn seems to have exacerbated the problem. The weakening of the national currency, rial has made smuggled alcohol far too expensive for most of the population. Instead, individuals are forced to consume bootleg alcohol, which can often cause blindness or even death.
While alcohol smuggling and alcohol consumption are considered “social harms”, the government fails to address the increase in deaths caused by alcohol poisoning and its potential implications for public health.