Drugs Politics in Iran

17th July 2019


The ‘art of managing disorder’ is how Wadham Lecturer Maziyar Ghiabi describes the impact of drugs on political life and state-society relations in Iran.

In his new book Drugs Politics: Managing disorder in the Islamic Republic of Iran (CUP) Ghiabi explores the on-the-ground mechanisms of Iran’s government over the last four decades.

Maziyar explains: “Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has lived through events the scale of which is epochal. An eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, repeated waves of economic sanctions, a looming threat of military confrontation with the US under Bush Jr, Obama and now Trump, an involvement in a regional struggle in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Commentaries on Iran’s role in the Middle East are abundant and colourful, less known are the on-the-ground mechanisms of government and the granular changes transforming the country, its politics and society, over the last four decades.”

With this objective he began researching the politics of illicit drugs and ‘addiction’ in Iran. “Drugs are not a niche aspect of contemporary life in Iran. With rates of drug (ab)use amongst the highest worldwide and a long border with the world’s main source of opiates (Afghanistan), drugs have had a far-reaching impact on political life and state-society relations.”

Maziyar carried out 15 months of immersive ethnography, combined with the collection of a large archival database, and in-depth interviews with public officials. The result unearthed Iran’s history of experimentation in the field of drug consumption and public policy.

“What was most surprising was that religion and Islamic jurisprudence in particular did not play a significant role in informing or determining the state’s intervention vis a vis illicit drugs. Instead it introduced ‘harm reduction’ policies, an internationally recognised set of practices aimed at minimising the negative impact of drug consumption, which include methadone maintenance and needle exchange programmes.”

“By framing the drug phenomenon as a ‘crisis’ – on health, social, and ethical grounds – the state adopted a flexible and humanitarian management strategy, what in the book I call the art of managing disorder. This experience informs the way the state engages with other forms of crisis, including in the permanent crisis to which it is exposed in the geopolitical game of the Persian Gulf.”

Describing the book, Didier Fassin (Princeton) comments: "Through rigorous archival investigation and courageous ethnographic inquiry…a fascinating account of the Islamic Republic’s government of crises." Asef Bayat of the Univeristy of Illinois writes: “The book is a fascinating study of the politics and lifeworld of illicit drugs, one that reveals a great deal about the paradoxical nature of politics in the Islamic Republic…[It] is likely to remain a standard text.’

Great news is that the book comes in an Open Access format supported by the Wellcome Trust and can be accessed here.

  • Dr Maziyar Ghiabi

    Dr Maziyar Ghiabi

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