Fighting addiction bares emotion in reserved Iran
Group therapy takes hold in a country waging an escalating
war against drugs.
By Scott Peterson
Christian Science Monitor
December 7, 1999
There was backslapping and hand-holding as the former junkies applauded
the numbers of days that each one kept off drugs. "I never thought
I would stay alive one day without a heroin injection," Kianouche,
who has been off drugs for 14 months, told his comrades.
This Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting might be unremarkable in a self-confessional
society like America. But the fact that this bare-your-soul experience
is taking place in Iran, where public displays of emotion are rare - except
regarding religion - surprises even some Iranians.
"In the US, big-name athletes admit to using drugs, but not in
Iran," says Salehi Tabar, who treats addicts at a private clinic in
Tehran. "You can say that 99 percent of the men in Iran have tried
drugs, but few will admit it. Patients call this office and ask: Is it
private? Do you take names, or is it secret? Not even 5 percent will accept
to do group therapy."
Still, the waters of the Persian soul run deep, and Kianouche and the
other 50 or so men who met in a Tehran basement expressed a remarkable
degree of heartfelt feeling.
"My name is Hamid, and I am a drug addict," says one young
man in a purple sweater. "Why are we here? Before we came, we didn't
know the meaning of life, we had to get our drugs at any cost - even at
the cost of wife and family. Now we are convinced that addiction is gradual
Combating drug flow
Illegal drug use has escalated in the Islamic Republic of Iran in recent
years, despite harsh penalties for use. The ruling clerics have committed
more and more resources to combating the flow of opium, heroin, and hashish,
which often pass through Iran from Afghanistan on their way to Europe.
Last year, Iran seized - and ceremoniously burned - tons of narcotics,
and the United Nations Drug Control Program regularly applauds its efforts.
Yet so far this year, Iran has lost more than 100 security personnel, bringing
the official number of dead in antidrug operations to 2,350. Most died
in gun battles on Iran's eastern border against armed and sophisticated
drug trafficking groups.
Moreover, the number of addicts has grown because the economy is depressed,
and job prospects are dim.
Scores of government centers have been set up to treat drug users -
officials have been quick to recognize the problem, openly campaigning
to stop it - and specialists advertise in newspapers to help people kick
For those who can tolerate the in-depth personal scrutiny, or often,
these addicts say, when other treatments fail them, there is NA - and a
whole new, unexpected support group.
"I didn't come for two weeks, and I missed seeing you," said
one man, with a thick, multicolored sweater. "Some of you called me,
you were worried about me. Thank you. But all the cells of my body - I
have trained every single cell not to ask for drugs. I thank God for making
me able to do that, because I pray regularly."
Na first began in Tehran five years ago, brought from Los Angeles -
called Tehr-Angeles by Iranians, because of the number of Iranians living
there - by a reformed addict who wanted to make a difference. At first
he encountered resistance from some authorities who called him a CIA agent.
But from a first meeting in a government reform center, it was clear the
Today NA meetings are held in 18 cities across the country, with 16
locations in the capital alone. Former junkies meet up for activities that
range from mountain hiking to soccer matches to early morning runs twice
The theme during a recent meeting was "Giving your dependency up
to God," in keeping with a long-standing NA theme written in the group's
Basic Text, or guidelines: "At some point, we realized that we needed
the help of some Power greater than our addiction," notes the Web
site of the Van Nuys, Calif.-based NA.
This idea fits with the monotheistic religion of Islam, so transporting
this method of stopping drug use has not been an issue in Iran.
"Thank you God for this beautiful day," spoke up one man,
a large Armenian called Andic, who has been off drugs for a year and two
days. "I thought God had forgotten me, but if he really did, I'd be
dead by now. He showed me the solution."
"NA doesn't care about your religion or your race," confirmed
Mohamed, a bushy-haired man with prayer beads.
"I was looking for a place out of politics, just one place where
we were all addicts and believed in one God," he adds. "When
he saw that I was determined to do something, God loved me."