AA Meetings Are Thriving In A Country Where Alcohol Is Illegal

By Paul Fuhr 08/16/18

A new episode of PBS's "Frontline" offers a glimpse inside Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Iran. 

people walking on a street in Isfahan, Iran

Alcohol is banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is alive and well in a country where the consequences for drinking are severe.

Many Iranians are starting to believe the true cost of alcohol—everything from brutal lashings to the death penalty—is worth it. At least, that’s the message suggested in an eye-opening new episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline.

“I was arrested [with alcohol] and got 77 lashes,” an AA member said in the episode. “They use leather whips, just like with a horse. That’ll hurt, yeah. My skin was all torn apart.” He’s not alone, Frontline reveals, as the episode explores how AA has increasingly taken root in the country.

The country’s Ministry of Information has allowed the AA Big Book (in which co-founder Bill Wilson outlined the 12-step program) to be printed and shared, with meeting groups rising all over Tehran, Iran's capital. The results are telling, as one AA group member says he’s celebrated eight years of sobriety while another has another four under his belt. 

Alcohol may be highly illegal, but it’s clearly not impossible to find. “You call someone who sells it and they come and deliver it to you,” an AA member explained to Frontline. “They bring it in a paper bag, you pay them, and they’re off again.”

The simplicity of that transaction belies many other stories about Iran’s hidden drinking subculture, which is almost as hidden as the country’s burgeoning AA fellowship.

Despite Iran’s alcohol ban and frequent police raids, “drinking in Iran is widespread, especially among the wealthy,” the Independent reported.

There aren’t any nightclubs, so all of the illegal imbibing occurs behind closed doors. Some of the booze is smuggled in, but much of the wine and beer is made right under the noses of Iranian law enforcement, who are all too eager to mete out punishment.

And while AA meetings reveal that some Iranians are seeking help they desperately need, Iran itself remains a country in denial about its larger alcohol problem.

The Daily Beast published a feature that considered why “cruel penalties [have] not managed to reduce the popularity of drinking alcohol, particularly among young people, or its dramatic abuse by a stunning number of alcoholics.”

Put into context, Iran ranks 166 in alcohol consumption per capita, but that statistic isn’t telling the whole story. If you look at World Health Organization estimates for people who consume 35 liters or more of alcohol over a year, the country actually ranks 19th in the entire world.

“In other words, the number of alcoholics per capita puts Iran ahead of Russia (ranked 30), Germany (83), Britain (95), the United States (104) and Saudi Arabia (184),” The Daily Beast reported.

Still, the Islamic Republic refuses to address its problem, beyond some scattered public ad campaigns that depict the dangers of drinking and driving. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.