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The Crescent and the Needle: The Remarkable Rise of NA in Iran

Narcotics Anonymous has thrived in Iran since 1990, second in membership and groups only to the United States. The Fix takes a look inside the phenomenon.

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By John Lavitt

04/07/14

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As of 2012 there were 61,800 Narcotics Anonymous meetings worldwide. 27,650 in the USA and 15,955 in the rest of the world, except for Iran. There are 18,195 weekly NA meetings in Iran where Narcotics Anonymous was voted the top NGO by the government. How did such a paradoxical reality come to pass? 

Shattering Expectations

Rebecca had experience being in tough situations at 3 AM in the morning. In the thick of her heroin addiction, she had been in jeopardy countless times. As the Assistant Executive Director of the Narcotics Anonymous World Services Office, she had traveled all over the world. She had led workshops for emerging NA fellowships in many Third World countries. Still, nothing had prepared her for standing in line at customs at the Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport in 2006.

Standing next to NA Board Member Tom M. from Hawaii, Rebecca leaned on her old friend for reassurance. As a six-foot-tall blond woman with a poorly-tied impromptu veil, she knew she stood out; an American in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although Tom reassured her that everything would be all right, Rebecca kept thinking of the tabloid reports about Iran in the American media. She came of age during the Iranian hostage crisis. Night after night, the images of bound and blindfolded hostages on Ted Koppel’s Nightline had been downright terrifying.

After passing through customs, Rebecca and Tom were greeted by Siamak, the office manager of NA World Services Iran, and several other enthusiastic Iranian NA members. She was surprised they had stayed up so late. Rebecca felt her fears evaporating as she was met with smiles and respectful embraces. They got their luggage and headed into the city. “Tehran is huge,” Tom wrote in his Iran Diaries, “The city at 3:00 AM was still bustling.” 

After a quick bite to eat, they wondered if they could take a rest. Siamak let them know that wouldn’t be possible until later because there was so much to do and see. There were people to meet and things to accomplish. Most importantly, the fellowship had set up a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where they would share their stories through translators.

With so many NA members wanting to attend, the fellowship had rented out a local sports arena. When Rebecca and Tom heard this, they looked at each other, a bit confounded. Rebecca thought, “I mean, a sports arena? How many people will be there?” 

When they arrived at the Arena in mid-afternoon on a workday, the car had to navigate through a maze of parked vehicles to reach the back entrance. Ushered down the kind of hallway where one usually only sees professional athletes, rock stars and security guards, Tom could hear the roar getting louder and louder. In the Iran Diaries, he described the experience of entering the arena:

“…the members all started clapping and then chanting as they clapped. You know why they are clapping and you know exactly who you represent. I thought holy shit, this is off the charts. Rebecca says to me, ‘What did we ever do to deserve this experience?’ I said we shot a lot of dope, that's all, and beyond that we have just showed up like any other member.”

Over 24,000 Iranians in recovery greeted the NA World Services representatives in celebration. But it wasn’t Tom and Rebecca they were cheering; it was NA itself. Coming from the United States, they represented the birthplace of Narcotics Anonymous, a program that had saved so many lives and become such a force for good in Iran. 

All of Rebecca’s fears of going to a fundamentalist country as an American citizen evaporated as the tradition of Persian hospitality, the passionate belief of the Iranian NA members and a truly universal celebration of recovery became the zeitgeist of the moment. Tears came to her eyes as she looked up to see banners hanging in the arena with the traditional recovery proverb written in English specifically for them, “Just For Today.” 

Tom described the power of the moment when he wrote, “There were several rows of women in the back of the room. Becky shared as a woman with 27 years clean. You can imagine the impact that had. When we spoke and said how long we were clean they all chanted out something in Farsi that I later found out meant, ‘and may nothing ever take it from you.’”

May nothing ever take it from you because recovery from the depth of addiction is a blessing and a miracle all over the world. It doesn’t matter the name of the country or the tenor of the politics. But the looming question is how did this happen? How did Narcotics Anonymous become so successful in Iran?

The Quality Of Narcotics Anonymous In Iran

Founded in the United States in 1953, Narcotics Anonymous officially describes itself as a "nonprofit fellowship or society of men and women for whom drugs had become a major problem.” Since the rocky beginnings of this 12 Step program in California when police harassment was common, the fellowship has spread and today can be found in over 130 countries across the world. After the United States, the country with both the most weekly meetings and the largest population in the fellowship is the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Rebecca described her impression in an interview with The Fix, “What we talk about as principles in 12 Step fellowships, the Iranians in NA live and embrace in a way that impacted my own recovery for the better. The lengths they will go to help an addict in need was inspiring; a lesson in true recovery.” 

The NA World Service office in Chatsworth has become accustomed to excluding Iran from worldwide reports; the Iranian phenomenon skews the figures. Statistics From the 2008 NAWS Report include the following: 

1. Iran accounted for 126,000 copies of 447,000 Basic Text sales worldwide (the Basic Text is to NA what the Big Book is to AA)

2. The Iran office distributed one million key tags, including 200,000 multi-year key tags: 9% more than the United States

3. Iran distributed 1.7 million NA information pamphlets; this number was greater than the rest of the world combined

Since the Islamic revolution in 1980 that overthrew the corrupt regime of the Shah, Iran often has found itself at odds with the Western world in general and the United States in particular. But the story of Narcotics Anonymous in Iran has nothing to do with politics or international conflicts or religious fundamentalism. The surprising success of NA in Iran is based on a remarkable commitment to recovery by the fellowship and an ardent focus on continuing to reach out to the newcomer. 

NA World Services was not aware of the true success of Narcotics Anonymous in Iran until 2003 when Iranian members started reaching out for guidance. Chatsworth knew that NA in Iran existed, but, according to Rebecca, their impression was that it was a struggling movement. The movement did have a bumpy start in October 1990 when Mohsen T. returned to Iran from the United States and tried to start a NA meeting in an Iranian rehab center.

At the time, Mohsen had only one year clean. He had joined NA while living in Los Angeles and was so taken with the program that he hoped to bring it back to his home country. Unfortunately, the Iranian rehab tried to co-opt that first NA meeting and attach their name to it. Not wanting to violate the traditions, Mohsen had to abandon the project. 

Later, according to an anonymous source for The Fix from the NA WS office in Iran, Mohsen started meeting in private homes with three other Iranians who had experience in 12 Step programs in the United States and Canada. These men bumped into each other by happenstance, an example what people in recovery call a God Shot.

Since they were all newcomers, according to a NA member from Iran, “It was another 4 years before NA really took hold in Iran. Once members accumulated some time and worked the steps, they began translating NA literature into Farsi and the fellowship took off.” 

When the NA World Service office was contacted in 2003, the initial reaction was nothing less than utter surprise. The movement had grown so big and so fast that the office staff in Chatsworth thought surely something had gone wrong. Had the government become directly involved? Had NA in Iran become co-opted by a religious movement?

In order to find out what was really happening, Rebecca described the next steps taken: “In 2004, someone from the region we trusted went to check it out and discovered that NA in Iran was not only like NA as we knew NA, but it was even better. Better in the enthusiasm, better in carrying the message to the addict who still suffers, better in terms of a commitment to their own recovery and helping others find the same path. In May of 2005, a branch office of NA World Services was opened in Iran.” 

When asked why Narcotics Anonymous proved to be so successful, a member of the NA WS Iran office told The Fix:

a) The early and continuing efforts to translate NA literature into Farsi and distribute it to NA members

b) A powerful service structure with dedicated trusted servants

c) The traditions of Persian culture that worked so well in conjunction with the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of NA.

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