The Crescent and the Needle: The Remarkable Rise of NA in Iran - Page 2

By John Lavitt 04/07/14

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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A Short History Of Opium From Persia To Iran

Beyond the obvious passion for being of service in recovery by the Iranian NA members, another clear reason for the success of NA in Iran is the devastating extent of the drug problem in that country. The history of opiates in Iran is long and dates back before even the establishment of the Persian Empire. Yet, the problem has never been as bad as it is today. 

As detailed in a Radio Free Europe report,  

“Opium and heroin in Iran is widely available, and the country has the highest per capita number of opiate addicts in the world at a rate of 2.8% of Iranians over age 15. The Iranian Government estimates the number of addicts at 2 million…. Opium costs far less in Iran than in the West and is even cheaper than beer. In Zahedan, an Iranian town near the Pakistani border, 3 grams of opium can be purchased for 10,000 Iranian rials, equivalent to $1 USD... Opium and heroin are popular because alcohol is haram (forbidden in Islam), and more tightly controlled by the Iranian government. According to official Iranian government reports, within Tehran the daily consumption of opium is 4 metric tons.”

Beyond being one of the world’s oldest societies, Iran also has one of the oldest histories of opiate abuse. Although opium first appeared in Persian culture in 3300 BC thanks to Sumerian traders, the drug did not take hold until Alexander the Great reintroduced it in 330 BC. Later, in the 1600s, Persians began eating and drinking opium mixtures on a regular basis for recreational use. From that point until the 20th century, opium was an accepted part of the culture.

During the time of the Shah, opium was illegal in name only and tolerated by the corrupt regime. PBS Frontline explained how the Shah tried to placate his Western benefactors by making a weak stand against drug use in Persian culture: “As part of Iran’s drug-control efforts, a law was passed in 1968 permitting opium addicts above the age of fifty to register with the government; in 1975 the number of these was about 170,000, though estimates of additional unregistered addicts range from 200,000 to one million.”

After the revolution, the response by the leaders of the new Islamic republic was to take a hardline against both drugs and drug users. The days of tolerance for opium smokers and heroin abusers in Iran were over. Like America’s “Just Say No” efforts during the War on Drugs, this uncompromising approach only managed to fill up the prisons with addicts in need of recovery. Being caught in the grip of the Golden Crescent of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the poppy fields bloom, the present day Iranian government tries to stop the importation of the drug. But it is a losing battle. 

As detailed in Intellibriefs by Conrad Legendy, “Total annual opium intercepts by the Iranian authorities are larger than in any other country, but the government admits that they can only intercept a tiny proportion of the thousands of tons that are trafficked through Iran every year.” 

Given the amount of drugs entering the country and the religious prohibition on alcohol, is the opium and heroin problem in Iran really all that shocking?

The Iranian government has evolved in their approach toward drug addiction in the country, shifting from a punishment perspective to a harm-reduction model. Today, in order to reduce the spread of blood-borne viruses like HIV and hepatitis C, Iranians can obtain needles without a prescription in any pharmacy. (Although this was the policy during the Shah's regime as well, it has not changed.) With the jails overflowing, the government does not know what else to do.

An Iranian NA member told The Fix that such a policy does not result in the promotion of true recovery. He described garbage pails containing used needles next to toilets in public bathrooms in the big cities in Iran. This is how extensive the drug problem has become in a society where alcohol is replaced by heroin and the tradition of opium use continues to resonate—indeed opium use is still more common in Iran than the extensive heroin use precisely because it is more traditionally accepted.

Narcotics Anonymous And The Iranian Government

The initial response from the Iranian government to Narcotics Anonymous was cautious and open. Proactive efforts by the first NA members to do positive public relations work with the government showed that they meant no harm and posed no threat. In a 2000 NA Way magazine, Frouhar T. made one of the first reports about the fellowship in Iran and its relationship with local authorities:

“It is wonderful to inform you that last week we celebrated the fifth anniversary of our first NA meeting in Iran. It was a moving experience when, at the end of the gathering, a recovering family of four (a father and his two sons in NA, the mother in Naranon) blew out the candles on our fifth anniversary cake. This was a clear message of recovery and hope.

We had high-ranking guests from interested government agencies, including someone from the Iranian House of Representatives. For the first time, we were able to invite legislators and decision makers from the Iranian government to see how our program works, and we were able to do this without jeopardizing our members or compromising our traditions. It is a miracle to achieve such acceptance and respect in a country that only six years ago was still whipping and sometimes executing addicts.” 

Although the report sounded truly positive, it also made the staff of NA World Services nervous. After all, despite the claim that no traditions had been broken, it sounded questionable that government officials would attend such a gathering. In addition, the description of the officials as “high-ranking guests” could either have been a question of English being the writer’s second language or it could imply a potential violation of the 10th Tradition of NA that clearly states: “Narcotics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the NA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” 

Later, such fears were proved wrong when NA Iran reached out to the NA World Services office in Chatsworth for help in 2003. The Islamic Republic of Iran had voted Narcotics Anonymous the top NGO (non-governmental organization) in the country and wanted to give the fellowship an award. NA WS informed the government that, while the award could be accepted on behalf of Narcotics Anonymous, the fellowship's policy was not to accept any external offers of financial support. This surprised the Republic. If the fellowship wasn't after money, what did they want?

Rebecca of NA WS gave a succinct answer in her interview with The Fix: "[The members of NA] just wanted to be allowed to exist."

Why Is The Tenor Of NA Recovery In Iran So Remarkable?

When trying to understand the logic behind the success of NA in Iran, Tom M. from Hawaii told The Fix, “Another reason is the age ‘maturity’ of the membership; most members are in their mid 30's to 60’s; most are university educated and have careers and families. This is unlike the growth in the US and most of the rest of the NA world where we have had mostly young addicts with no education; off the streets and out of the jails. I think they in someway had the same demographics as the early AA fellowship.”

Indeed, such maturity of the Iranian NA fellowship in the initial years helped to establish the guiding principles that ensured their future success. Such an establishment is reflective of the work done by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob in the early years of Alcoholics Anonymous. Still, given the American perception of the Iranian government and the religious extremism associated with Islamic fundamentalism, it remains hard to accept the facts: Narcotics Anonymous is not only accepted in Iran, but it continues to be lauded year after year.

How can this be? Especially in the face of so many challenges. 

With the huge size (200 to 300) of the average meeting, it’s a real challenge for the Iranian fellowship to find weekly meeting places in so many cities that can hold so many members. It’s a challenge for any non-governmental organization in Iran to renew a license. Yet, NA in Iran continues to successfully navigate each of these hurdles and more. 

How do you maintain the intimacy and safety needed for newcomers in such large meetings? How do you work the steps with newcomers when there are so many more people in early recovery than members with experience as sponsors? It is not surprising that a major focus of the fellowship is the creation of solid foundations for newcomers.

Rebecca illuminates the staggering challenges, “There are people in the fellowship that have 150 sponsees. Sponsors tend to have sponsee gatherings and meetings just with their sponsees. Still, I can’t imagine how it is possible for one person to listen to 150 5th step inventories.”

She then went on to explain how the Iranian fellowship so effectively deals with its greatest challenge, that of avoiding conflict with the politics of Islamic fundamentalism: “NA in Iran has done an amazing job of demonstrating that they are not a religious program. They are not in conflict with any of the precepts of Islam. They do a remarkable job of keeping politics out of NA and focusing on their primary purpose to carry the NA message of recovery to the addict who is still suffering. Even though they have grown faster than anyplace in the world, they continue to make an unprecedented effort to carry that message.”

The fellowship in Iran has shown a remarkable dedication to the principles that exist at the heart of the Narcotics Anonymous program. In the Iran Diaries, as the representatives from NA World Services visited city after city and held workshop after workshop, the consistency of the recovery in Iran took their breath away. Tom particularly was surprised when they were invited to a party to celebrate the completion of the 12 Steps by NA members:

“Basically what they do is the first time a member has worked all 12 steps they have a party, their sponsors line up and the sponsees line up in rows in front of them. Of course, everyone is sitting on the floor. The sponsees have something written and each one is called upon to read their 12th step. At first, I thought this was really strange, but as I watched, I realized what a brilliant little ceremony this is. What would be more worth celebrating than completing the 12 steps for the first time? I know scores of members in the states who have been clean for years and have never done all 12 steps. Here, working the NA program means working the 12 steps, no if's and's or but's about it.”

By keeping the emphasis on the 12 Steps, Narcotics Anonymous in Iran revitalizes the lifeblood of the program and fosters proactive long-term recovery. In a country with the highest per capita number of heroin and opium addicts in the world, the desperate nature of the situation is obvious. Without Narcotics Anonymous, what would happen to these addicts in Iran? Would they be thrown into prison? What would there loved ones do? 

When it comes to an addiction as extreme as heroin, there are no easy answers. The horror experienced by the families and friends of addicts as they watch their loved ones caught in the vise of addiction is unspeakable. Such horror transcends borders and boundaries. It has nothing to do with politics or international relations or stories in newspapers. It is a daily reality experienced around the world, and the success of NA in Iran shows the tremendous importance of recovery and how 12 Step programs truly provide a universal resource to addicts and alcoholics all over the world. 

During his trip to Iran, Tom did not expect to keep running into NA members outside of meetings. Yet, wherever they went, they seemed to bump into person after person who wanted to express their gratitude for the NA program. One such member told a story that presented an iconic image that captures the essence of why the success of Narcotic Anonymous in Iran is so important:

“…before he found NA he tried everything to stop using. He had walked all the way to Mashhad (a holy site) four different times in hopes of a healing from his addiction, it would take him 10 days by foot. It is supposed to be common for Muslims to do things like this, it is their belief that they would receive a miracle… at the mosque in Mashhad, he (recently) saw a young man tied to the tomb with ropes and two large men guarding him so he wouldn't run away. When asked why he was tied to the tomb, they told him his parents had him brought there in hope that a miracle would happen and he would be free from his drug addiction. The NA member talked to him and ended up bringing him to an NA meeting. As of this date he has 7 days clean.”

The young man’s family had grown so hopeless that they had tied their son to a column at a holy site, desperately seeking a miracle. The tragedy of addiction drives people to such extremes, praying for a divine intervention in order to save a loved one. If Narcotics Anonymous had not taken hold in Iran, would that young man still be tied to that column today? 

John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about The Anonymous People.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.