TEHRAN – On June 26, Iranian state media reported that 20,000 former drug addicts had assembled at Tehran's Azadi Stadium to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended, and used the podium to portray narcotics as an implement of Western predation. "Today," he said, Western countries "have begun harming nations, especially the Iranian nation, by drugs. Arrogant states masquerade themselves behind the so-called humanitarian masks and they want to stir a sense of inability in other nations. They put on masks of freedom-seeking, human rights, and protecting people but in fact they are the biggest criminals in the world."
A rare visit to an Iranian opium den.
Tehran is one the higher capitals on the earth's surface, and not only in terms of altitude. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Iran has 1.2 million "drug-dependent users," and that 2.26 percent of the population aged 15-64 is addicted to opiates. The organization's director, Yuri Fedotov, has praised Iran for having "the world's highest rate of seizures of opium and heroin," and for developing effective treatment and prevention programs. Human Rights Watch, by contrast, has criticized Fedotov for glossing over the country's inadequate legal proceedings and executions of drug offenders. Most alarmingly, people arrested during opposition demonstrations, such as the Dutch-Iranian Sahra Bahrami, have occasionally been hanged as "drug smugglers."
Today's Islamic Republic offers premonitions of a narcodystopia. Take a car ride through Tehran at night, and your driver may tell you that the underage girls in chadors who offer esfand -- seeds that are burned to ward off the evil eye -- along the highways are really selling sex to enable addicted fathers. Ride the metro, and you will see battered children pitching trinkets and fortunes to sustain their parents' habits. Visit a poor southern suburb like Shahr-e Rey, and you might see a cigarette vendor in the bazaar with a sideline in used needles. Walk through Khaju Kermani Park on the capital's southeastern outskirts, and you might witness young girls smoking crystal meth in full view of park authorities, while in the background a tall, badly sunburned man with track marks on his arms staggers around in an ill-fitting, woman's blouse.
Yet the Iranian drug scene is not an exclusive feature of the country's decadent capital, or solely of its abject underclass. Its roots run deep and wide: For example, when I was visiting the tomb of the 12th-century poet Saadi, a tourist attraction in the southern city of Shiraz, Azad, a local literary critic who was showing me around, gestured beyond the garden walls to the adjacent neighborhood, named Saadieh after the poet. This he identified as a hub for the region's thieves, traffickers, and drug addicts. "Would you like to visit? It's very easy to visit, but you might not come back alive," he joked. I had seen enough Iranian skid rows to demur, but, intrigued by the apparent intersection of drugs and high culture, I pressed him for insights.
In a display of Persian hospitality, he invited me to the home of a learned opium enthusiast to witness a display. Opium, Azad told me, is Iran's oldest and most entrenched drug, and was used medically in the region by Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher-scientist, 1,000 years ago. In ensuing centuries, it was extolled by the poets of the Persian canon. The best-loved of these, Hafez, measured his ecstasies against it, writing, in the genre of love:
"A wound from you is worthier than salve from others/Your poison, sweeter than the opium they render."
When we entered the front room of a large house on the city's periphery -- shielded from the street by high walls -- there lay arranged on the floor a metal brazier full of coals, an opium pipe, and other paraphernalia, along with plates of watermelon (your reliable narrator partook only of the fruit).