The head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, has warned Iranian media not to cover sex tourism unless they want to face prosecution.
The warning was issued September 10 amid increasing reports of Iraqi Shi'ite pilgrims to the holy city of Mashhad hiring sex workers during their stay. Some reports allege sex tourism has become a bigger draw for Iraqis to the holy Shi’ite city than the religious sites.
Ironically, one of the media outlets reporting on Iraqi sex tourism in Iran, Khabar Online, is closely affiliated with Larijani’s elder brother and speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani. The brothers were born in Najaf, Iraq.
After forbidding coverage of the issue, Larijani said the United States had fabricated the reports of Iraqi sex tourism in Mashhad, telling the government’s official news agency IRNA, “The U.S. is attempting to sow the seeds of division between Iranians and Iraqis,” adding “I have ordered Tehran’s Prosecutor-General to charge media outlets that seek to promote animosity between Iranians and Iraqis by highlighting these stories about pilgrims to Mashhad.”
Mashhad is home to the mausoleum of one of the Shi’ite faith’s twelve Imams, Ali Ibn Moussa al-Reza. The city is controlled by the most conservative clergy, who also benefit from tens of millions of dollars in annual donations and income of the holy shrine.
Iraqi tourism in Iran has increased along with the decline of Iran’s national currency, the rial, as visits are now cheaper.
In an August 26 story the daily Shahrvand quoted a tourism industry worker as saying, “Some of the Iraqi pilgrims book their rooms in Mashhad provided they come with a woman for sigheh (temporary marriage).” Shia Islam permits temporary marriages in addition to the four legal wives a man can have.
Sex services are offered to Iraqi men and other foreign tourists and pilgrims in up to 6,000 private accommodations called “travelers houses” in Mashhad, Khabar Online, the website affiliated with Ali Larijani, reported.
Iranian law explicitly forbids unmarried men and women from entering a hotel room together.
In 2015 The Guardian reported that a young man named Alireza is known in the local travel industry as a fixer for sex services, and many hoteliers and shop owners give his phone number to inquiring Iraqis.
“The women have their own apartments around [middle- and working-class districts of] Qasem Abad and Moallem Boulevard. The exchanges are made there,” Alireza told The Guardian then.
According to Shahrvand, the growth of Iraqi sex tourism has angered locals not just in Mashhad, but also in Abadan in the oil rich province of Khuzestan.
However, the Islamic Republic’s authorities have repeatedly insisted that these allegations are unfounded and “designed” by “imperialist and arrogant” powers, code for the U.S.
Responding to a question about “moral corruption” and “perversion” in Abadan, Khuzestan’s representative to the Assembly of Experts, mid-ranking cleric Mohsen Heidari told state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) September 10, “Generally and implicitly speaking, I believe that the authorities should study the recent events in a comprehensive way and, then, properly address the problem.”
But Heidari also blamed foreign interference for the controversy.
“These forces have been hit hard by the unity of Iranian and Iraqi nations,” he said. “Therefore, one should not forget that creating pessimism and suspicion will be detrimental to Iranians as well as Iraqis.”
Footage circulated recently on social media showed hundreds of demonstrators in Abadan chanting “Iraqis out!” in Persian.
According to ISNA, the Free Trade Zone of Arvand in Khuzestan, where Iraqis can travel without an entry visa, hosts hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mainly from Basra and other parts of Iraq, every day. ISNA also reported that there are many brothels in the area where trafficked women are held against their will and forced into the sex trade.