Death Sentence Marks Latest Battle in Iran’s Culture War

In a rare incident, the Iranian judiciary issued a death sentence to two men for drinking alcohol, a crime typically punished by fines or flogging.

Photograph by Javad Montazeri

For roughly 30 years Iran has been in the throes of a culture war, as leaders have attempted to beat back creeping Westernization, especially among the youth. The latest salvo occurred on Sunday when the Iranian judiciary sentenced two men to death for drinking alcohol—a rare incident for such a crime.

Drinking alcohol has long been illegal in Iran. But when perpetrators are caught, they typically face fines or flogging. The men in question had been arrested twice before for drinking.

"The regime … has lost its popular base,” said Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights lawyer and a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“It wants to … frighten people and force them to obey the unfair laws of the Islamic Republic."

Iran’s culture war has long been a delicate dance. Analysts say that authorities typically arrest a few people who listen to banned music or sport Western hairstyles. Then they turn around and tolerate similar tastes and behaviors among the general public, for fear of causing widespread unrest; more than half the country is under the age of 35, and young Iranians in particular are fond of Western culture.

Yet Sunday’s announcement appears to reflect growing anger by Iranian authorities over rising alcohol consumption. Indeed, the Iranian police reportedly discover 5.3 million gallons of alcohol each year—the equivalent of more than eight Olympic-size swimming pools. Most alcohol, however, is never confiscated. Recently, the head of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters estimated that roughly $730 million worth of alcohol is shipped into the country each year, but that only $200 million is discovered.

Iranian officials traditionally blame Western countries for the choices Iranians make in their private lives, whether it be wearing Western fashion or consuming alcohol.

“The Western world … [has] targeted the psychological and mental health of Iranian youth,” said Issa Ghanbari, the deputy governor of West Azerbaijan province, earlier this year at a press conference.

“With support from Western countries, smuggling gangs send insured and guaranteed shipments of alcoholic beverages into Iran.”

Iran has attempted to put a damper on smuggling, especially in the Kurdish towns in the country’s northwest, where critics say security forces have employed often lethal tactics to deter couriers carrying illegally imported goods.

“Right now, in some prisons inside border towns there are entire wards dedicated to smugglers of alcoholic beverages,” said Saman Rasoulpour, a Kurdish journalist, in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Between March 2011 and April 2012, Iranian security forces have shot and killed 70 people along the border and injured another 76, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an NGO.

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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. Buying alcohol in Tehran, some say, is as easy as buying pizza.

“In big cities, in less than half an hour you can find an alcohol dealer,” says Reza, a resident of Tehran who didn’t want to be named because he has previously been punished for alcohol violations.

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.

In August of last year, for instance, Eqbal Mohammadi, a member of Parliament, told Iranian media that there are “confirmed reports” that indicate alcoholic beverages are imported through "official channels" and “before the eyes of organizations responsible for overseeing and monitoring the anti-smuggling operations,” according to Al-Sharq, an Iranian publication.

In Dubai, it’s well-known among businessmen that one of the best ways to ship unauthorized goods into Iran is through intermediary firms affiliated with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.

“Iran’s alcohol market is huge,” said one exporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from the government.

“Most of the market is in the hands of Iranian … authorities.”

As of Tuesday, the Iranian judiciary had yet to set a date for the executions of the two men, and it remains unclear whether their death sentences will be carried out or whether the announcement will be used as an intimidation factor.

On a per capita basis, Iran has the highest rate of executions in the world. Most of those sentenced to death are convicted of drug trafficking. According to a September 2011 report by the United Nations, there were 252 official and more than 300 secret executions in Iran in 2010.

Yet some death sentences issued by the Iranian courts such as the 2011 case of Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor who converted from Islam, have been met with international objection, which pressured the judiciary to overturn them.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, the author incorrectly stated that this was the first time the death penalty had been imposed for drinking alcohol in Iran.