Iran: The use of the death penalty for drug-related offences as a tool of political control

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Before analysing the issue of drug use in Iran as a tool of repression and political control, it is necessary to briefly highlight the situation of ethnic and religious minorities that face most of the public executions for and under the cover of drug issues according to the United Nations and various credible non-governmental organisations.[1]

Iran is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country composed mainly of Persians, Kurds, Baluchis, Azerbaijanis, Turkmens and Ahwazi-Arabs.[2] However, only the Persian-Shiite group holds state power, and Article 1 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (here after Iran) declares the Twelver Shi’a School of Islam as the formal religion of the state.[3]

The current government maintains the policies of its predecessors and adheres to a system of governance based on the ideology of one country, one nation, one language and one religion. These elements perpetuate systemic discrimination against and repression of all ethnic nationalities and religious minorities in the country. Governmental participation by members of ethnic nationalities or religious minorities such as Kurds, Sunni Baluchs or Baha’is is severely restricted, preventing such individuals from assuming the presidency or occupying any significant governmental position.[4]

Despite the new president's pledges for greater rights for ethnic and religious minorities during his election campaign, the number of executions of ethnic Baluchis, Kurds and Ahwazi Arabs is rising at an alarming rate.[5] The UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák, had previously declared that “the number of cases of individuals belonging to minorities being sentenced for their activities related to their minority rights is a cause for serious concern”.[6]

The context of Iran’s drug problems

The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a sharp increase in the number of drug addicts in the last three decades. Out of a population of 70 million people, Iran has about five million hard-core addicts, and millions more occasional users.[7] According to Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the head of Iran's anti-narcotics agency, every year more than 130,000 people become addicted. More than 75% of the hangings in Iran are related to drug offences according to Human Rights Watch, although the Iranian government does not provide statistics.[8] The latest serious comprehensive study on drug abuse, taking into consideration age, ethnicity, religious and the geographical dimension in Iran, was conducted back in 1976 by the National Iranian Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (NISRD), during the former monarchy.[9] The study showed that virtually ‘all of the drug addicts were Shiite Moslems with a significantly larger minority of unregistered abusers being ethnic Turks.’ Under the monarchy, the number of opium addicts was estimated to be between 200,000 to 500,000, the median age of drug addicts was between ages 55-64, and the major substance was opium. Today, however, Iran has the world's worst heroin problem[10], and 80% of drug users today are under 30 years old.[11]

The 1979 Islamic revolution marked a new Islamic social order and a fundamental break in the approach to drug issue. Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s 1979 revolution, blamed Iran’s drug use on the decadence of the West. Consequently, he ordered the end of all rehabilitation and drug treatment programmes and adopted a new policy: henceforth, drug users were perceived and framed as ‘deviants’ who were dangerous to the Islamic social order; as evidence of ‘foreign conspiracies’; and as a threat to national security.[12] The theorisation of the drug issue as foreign conspiracy along with the securitisation and criminalisation of drug users have led to the incarceration and execution of thousands of drug users. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, ‘over 10,000 drug users and dealers have been executed; many of them hanged in public in a Foucault[13] display of state sovereignty’.[14]

The drug issue as a tool of repression and political control

The Iranian authorities use the drug issue to enforce their rule and repress ethnic nationalities and members of opposition groups. Whenever it faces escalating crises, internally or externally, new and harsher laws against drugs and addicts are adopted and public hangings of members of ethnic nationalities increase dramatically. The following periods of hangings and drug laws illustrate this policy.

The 1979 revolution period and the start of Iran-Iraq war

In May 1980, Ayatullah Sadegh Khalkhali, the notorious revolutionary ‘hanging judge’ in Tehran, became the head of the anti-narcotics campaign and was put in charge of the ‘purification’ of drug users, leading to hundreds of executions. These efforts were undertaken simultaneously with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war (1980) and the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1980-83.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988

After the ceasefire between Iraq and Iran in 1988, there was a massive increase in executions of drug users. Punishments for drug use and dealing were reinforced in October 1988, when the Assembly for Discerning the Interests of the System of the Islamic Republic (Expediency Council) issued a decree enforcing the death penalty for possession of 30g of heroin and 5g of opium. At that time the National Drug Headquarters, which monitors all drug-related policies, was established. In the period between January and July of 1989, nine hundred drug offenders were executed under the new law. Furthermore, hangings of drug users closely followed the 1988 wave of executions of political prisoners. These crackdowns on and repression of drug users, especially members of ethnic minorities were legitimised with references to both moral depravation and national security.

Ahmadinejad’s re-election period

The period before and after (2008-2011) the contested re-election of Ahmadinejad has also seen an increase in public hangings. This was also followed by a reinforcement of the law on drug use. As Christensen put it, ‘Iran’s drug crises bring together a number of disparate policies, discourses and governmental actors, conducting what Foucault would call a strategic control of the population.’ This has, of course, had substantial negative impacts with regard to the affected minority groups. According to Human Rights Watch, 70% of executions in Iran in 2011 were drug-related.

However, the Iranian leaders not only use the drug issue internally to repress political activists and minorities, they also use it internationally to seek collaboration with Western countries and the UN, as they are aware of the potential benefits of this. For instance, it was through the drug discourse that President Khatami launched the ‘dialogue between civilizations’ during the opening of an office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Tehran in 2008. Furthermore, the ‘securitisation’ of the drug issue has been used as a venue for dialogue with the West by the regime, irrespective of the fact that in their public discourses, the Iranian authorities blame Western countries and, most absurdly, the ‘Zionist’ Jews for their supposed involvement in the spread of drugs in Iran. For instance, on June 25 2012, during an international and UN anti-drug conference in Tehran, the Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi stated that the Talmud (a sacred text of Judaism) was responsible for the spread of illegal drugs around the world.[15] Once again, the Iranian authorities use anti-Semitism to defend themselves and to draw attention to external factors in order to make others responsible for the problems faced by the country and its population.

Internationally, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a party to the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and it benefits from UN and international mechanisms and instruments to combat drug trafficking. Currently, Iran is benefiting from a programme sponsored by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) and the European Union Presidency. Despite the criminalisation of drug addicts and the multiple programmes supported by the international community to fight against drugs, the statistics mentioned above show that the number of drug victims has increased dramatically in the last three decades of the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Regarding international and UN aid to Iran, according to the OECD, the Iranian government received $556.3 million of international financial aid between 2007 and 2011. It is also important to highlight that under the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regulation on civil society, receiving any financial aid from foreigners is strictly prohibited; all foreign aid should be delivered through the government.

The international community’s aid to Iran’s drug fighting policy through government channels is problematic and doesn’t reach the victims due to the complex and opaque system of governance of the country. For instance, in Iran, it is not the Ministry of Health or the Social Welfare Organization[16] that makes laws and guidelines about drugs, but the Centre for the Fight Against Drugs (Markaz-e Mobareeh ba Mavad-e Mokhader). The main aim of this drugs watchdog is to make policies and to adopt a budget to fight drug trafficking, but not to treat the victims.

Some human rights NGOs also consider that the UN and international community’s aid to Iran violates the humanitarian principle of alleviating human suffering due to Iran’s repressive policy of execution and imprisonment of drug addicts and the targeting of ethnic nationalities. For instance, the number of extra-judicial killings of Kurdish border couriers has doubled; there have been 38 incidents in the last four months involving the death of 18 border couriers.[17]

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Harm Reduction International (HRI), the United Nations and the international community are: ‘effectively supporting prosecutions in a judicial and legal system that they themselves regard as unjust. Draconian laws, secret trials, no appeals and death sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs should warn off any donor that wants to do the right thing’. Furthermore, ‘Iran’s judicial and legal system systematically violates the human rights of accused drug offenders, in particular their right to a fair trial, resulting in numerous death sentences in violation of international law’.[18]

The drug problem is especially acute in Iranian Kurdistan. For example, on January 23 2013, the director of the Drug Headquarters in Kermanshah, a Kurdish province with one million inhabitants, declared that the number of drug addicts in Kermanshah was 50,000. However, Kurdish NGOs and media estimate this number at about 200,000.[19] It is revealing that the authorities report that 85% of the prison population in Kurdistan province is drug-related. According to Christensen, drug use is the ‘fourth (highest) cause of death in the country’.[20]

The lack of official and accurate statistics about the number of drug addicts and drug-related executions in Iran raises questions among Iranian ethnic nationalities and religious minorities — in particular, the Kurds. The Kurdish people, who were not drug addicts three decades ago, but now suffer elevated incidences of drug addiction, question the role of the Iranian regime in this phenomenon. The Kurds of Iran are mostly Sunni Moslems and the government research cited above shows that only the Shiite Moslems and ethnic Turks were drug addicts during the monarchical rule.[21] Thus, the spread of drugs in Kurdistan is clearly linked with the implementation of the Islamic regime. It is important to note that the Kurdish people in Kurdistan of Iraq, in Kurdistan of Turkey or in Kurdistan of Syria are also mostly Sunnis Moslems but do not suffer the phenomenon of drug addiction.[22]

To conclude, Iran’s drug policy and approach which allows the execution of drug offenders constitutes an undeniable violation of international law, particularly Article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the right to life, to which Iran is a treaty party. These executions are also in conflict with the fundamental moral principle of humanity: ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ as well as the human rights-based approach (or rights-holder approach) seeking a long-term and humane solution for drug victims to whom the states are responsible. This is even more problematic as Iran is a party to the 1988 United Nations Drug Convention and benefits from UN and international mechanisms and instruments to combat drug trafficking.

In light of the above analysis and due to Iran’s repressive policy, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a very serious human rights situation, and that UN and international community aid to Iran supports a policy that violates the humanitarian principle of alleviating suffering. The international community should recognise, react and condemn this situation, which constitutes one of the worst abuses of the human rights law, especially due to the use of the death penalty.

To comply with its international obligations, Iran needs to review its radical approach of criminalisation and isolation of drug-addicted persons. Additionally, the regime should modify its restrictive laws on the participation of national civil society organisations in the provision of humanitarian aid. The international and humanitarian community should exert pressure on the government to allow international organisations to enter the country to support local organisations that assist the victims. They should also reconsider their methods to provide humanitarian relief to drug addicts and their families and communities, through innovative strategies.

Finally, individual advocates, advocacy groups and the media should strengthen their efforts to bring the attention of the international community to the drug-related human rights violations of the religious minorities and the ethnic nationalities. Practices such as the disproportionate and arbitrary use of the death penalty to address drug addiction among Kurdish people should be a matter of international concern and rejection. So far, the failure of the traditional mechanisms to exert an effective pressure on the Iranian Government to respect its human rights commitments remains a great challenge to the international system, and especially to the victims and the civil society that struggle for justice.

Map of Iran showing ethnic geographical distribution

Source: Arte tv. Les Dessous des Cartes:

[1] Human Rights Council, The Human Rights Situation of Kurdish People in Islamic Republic of Iran, UN Doc A/HRC/14/NGO/7, UN Human Rights Council 14th Session/General Assembly, May 2010, available at and also at

[2] Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Alternative Report to CESCR on Iran 2013, March 2013, available at , see also: Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization p. 3.

[3] Nayyeri, M. Hossein, New Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An overview, March 2012, available at

[4] Human Rights Committee: Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Islamic Republic of Iran, adopted by the Committee at its fiftieth session (April-May 2013),

[5] Taimoor Aliassi ,Malgré les signes d’ouverture, l’Iran de Rohani exécute à tour de bras, published by Swiss News Paper Le Temps, December 2013:é_les_signes_douverture_lIran_de_Rohani_exécute_à_tour_de_bras

[6] OHCHR, Iran: UN rights experts urge Government to halt the execution of five Ahwazi activists, January 2013,

[7] Koring, Paul, Iran’s hidden scourge: Widespread drug abuse at all levels of society, The Globe Mail 27 May 2012, available at:

[8] Reuters, Iran has 130,000 new drug addicts each year, November 2009, available at:

[9] Agahi Cyrus & Spencer. Christopher. 1981. Drug Abuse in Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Iran. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 13: 39-46

[10] Jonathan Miller, Iran and heroin: a lesson for the west?, March 2006, Channel 4 News,

[11] CERAH/ Geneva Graduate Institute-Geneva University: Drug Addiction as a Human Right Issue in Iran, interview with an UNODC officer in Tehran by Taimoor Aliassi, by skype on March 2013 but for security reason the name of the interviewee is kept anonymous :

[12] Christensen, Janne Bjerre. 2011. Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society. London: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 124

[13] Paul-Michel Foucault was a French philosopher. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions.

[14] Christensen, Janne Bjerre. 2011 . Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society. London: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 123-124

[15] Erdbrink, Thomas, Iran’s Vice President Makes Anti-Semitic Speech at Forum. New York Times, June 2012, available at:

[16] The Ministry of Welfare and Social Security established in 2004 and dissolved in 2011, was an Iranian government body responsible for the oversight of Social security in Iran.

[17] The KMMK-G’s report on insdiscriminate killings of Kurdish kulbaran (border couriers) by Iranian security services for the period of November 2013 to February 2014 :

[18] Human Rights Watch, Iran: Donors Should Reassess Anti-Drug Funding, August 2012,

[19] Aweza, The Number of Drug Addicts are estimated to 50’000 in Kermansh, 23/01/2013, available at:

[20] Christensen, Janne Bjerre. 2011 . Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society. London: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 122

[21] Agahi Cyrus & Spencer. Christopher. 1981. Drug Abuse in Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Iran. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 13: 39-46

[22] Hawlati, July 2012, available at

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