Maziyar Ghiabi, Drugs Politics: Managing Disorder in the Islamic Republic of Iran (London: Cambridge University Press, 2019).* 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Maziyar Ghiabi (MG): I wrote this book for several reasons. Firstly, my main concern was to engage in a study of politics and power which went beyond the classical focus on the state as the all-powerful agent of enforcement and intervention in people’s lives. I wanted to explore the praxis of power in the Iranian context as opposed to the discursive, often rhetorical dimension of elite politics to which much attention has so far been paid. Scholarship of contemporary Iran has had an obsession with regard to the role of the state or with that of the “regime,” identifying the exercise of power only and almost exclusively through the category of the state and its associated agents, be it the revolutionary guards (IRGC), the Basij, the security forces, or the internal confrontations among competing factions, the evergreen “hardliners” versus “reformists” clash.

My intellectual engagement with the state, instead, was ethnographic and inspired by scholars who adopted the means of fieldwork and participant observation to the study of the state. The study of the Iranian state “at distance” produced a form of scholarship that lacked nuance—it simplified the exercise of control, the formulation of policies, the negotiation over praxis—and conceived the state as either a dualistic force animated by hardliners and reformists, or as animated by a monolithic will driven by single personalities (e.g. Khamenei vs Rafsanjani). This approach also missed the fundamental combination of progressive impetus within Iran’s state machinery with those undercurrent drives within the social fabric that had fundamental authoritarian tendencies, what in the book I define as “grassroots authoritarianism.”

This conceptual viewpoint informed my engagement with the research object which I intended to study. In fact, the actual object of investigation is perhaps what sets the book apart from most other works on Iran and the Middle East. Illicit drugs are an omnipresent commodity in Iranian society. It is hard to spend any time in Iran and not come across people consuming drugs of various kinds: opium smoked or eaten by rural workers or traditional families; hashish rolled in cigarettes in working class neighborhoods or weed (marijuana) smoked in rolled paper by urbanites of the middle class; or crystal meth smoked in glass pipes by female students or by homeless vagrants followed by the sedative shot of heroin. More interesting than that was the fact that, by the time I was about to start my project, public institutions had introduced a set of avant-gardist programmes for the provision of welfare and healthcare to drug users. There was something in the drug phenomenon which was ultimately political in nature and which deserved to be studied not from afar, but through grounded means. So, I embarked on the study of drugs politics.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MG: One thing that had always puzzled me in the scholarship on the Islamic Republic is the recurrence of the paradigm of the “paradox.” Describing the political, cultural, social realities of contemporary Iran as being “paradoxical” is the rule in many scholarly as well as journalist contributions. Yet, it seems to me that the use of the “paradox” has been an easy escape route which has had the ultimate effect of disengaging from the realities on the ground, the way state formation and social change has taken shape over the last four decades. Tradition versus modernity; theocracy versus republic; conservative values coexisting with secularizing trends; state versus society, and so on… For several years, these have been the key categories through which one read life in Iran.

Instead, in the book, I explored the paradigm of the “oxymoron,” deconstructing the contemporary processes of Iranian politics and society beyond their apparent incongruence and their oft-said exceptionality. In this way, the book looks at Iran’s crisis politics—and its drugs politics in particular—as existing in an oxymoronic dimension, where the coexistence of apparently insoluble traits is effectively how the state and its rhizomatic agents manage disorder.

Given the importance that drugs have played in the lives of Iranians and the way they have affected state-society relations, this book attempts to fill a void and to encourage more critical approaches informed by new topics, new phenomena, and new methodologies. That is why I draw inspiration from the field of political ethnography and anthropology of policy which, in the context of the Middle East, could allow more theoretical and conceptual experimentation in understanding how power is exercised and negotiated, amidst times of crises.

For scholars of illicit drugs, the book is the first providing detailed accounts of how Iran’s drugs problem has evolved and how the state has reacted to the challenges from an ethical, security, and public health perspective.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MG: The Wellcome Trust, which supported my doctoral research at Oxford University, provided also the funding to make the book OPEN ACCESS, including readers inside Iran where qualitative approaches remain marginal if not absent.

Because the book uncovers institutional and grassroots mechanisms that are often obfuscated by the thick layer of fog that surrounds the study of the Islamic Republic as a modern political machinery, it sheds light on understudied institutions such as the Expediency Council and its crisis management mechanisms, the informal and state-led “camps” securitizing the field of drug control, the infrapolitical negotiations in producing policy change, and so on.

One of its benefits, I hope, is to show how political processes and the rationale of intervention in conditions of “crisis”—such as HIV/AIDS epidemic and soaring drug-related deaths—are informed by a secular governmentality, what I define “profane politics with oxymoronic outcomes.” In a country like Iran where “crisis” has been more or less a permanent condition following the 1979 revolution, these findings should be relevant beyond the fields of drugs politics.

Besides, there is a growing literature on drugs history and drugs studies across the globe. So far, West Asia and North Africa have been left behind. The place of intoxicant drugs in this part of the world is understudied and yet very significant in understanding cultural changes and the impact of policy on people’s lives. So, the book intends to lay the foundations for all those interested in drugs history as well as in the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MG: Since the publication of this book, I have been working on three major projects.

I am now part of the SOAS-based project on Drugs and (Dis)Order. The project looks at how drug economies shape the insurgent borderlands of Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Colombia and how they can contribute to a post-war transition to peace. Moving beyond the comfort zone is rewarding because it enriches my research experiences: the project involves fieldwork supported by local stakeholders working in the three countries’ borderland areas where armed insurgent groups dominate the political economies of illegal commodities and are key agents in peace negotiations. Militias involved in drug trafficking, peasants producing opium and coca, local negotiators and grassroots groups merge in an ecology where the frontiers become central in state formation processes.

My second project is a collaboration with Billie Jeanne Brownlee at the University of Exeter. Since 2011, we have been working on conceptualizing and deconstructing the transregional revolt, civil wars, and displacement crises within and in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring”—an event which we prefer to call “Arab Revolt’” (see our article in Middle East Critique, “Passive, Silent and Revolutionary: the “Arab Spring” revisited”). Here, we tackle the different conceptualizations of time/space in revolutions/revolts formulating a framework to explore the ecology of protests occurring following 2011 in the Arab and Western capitals. To do so we reinterpret the place of mythologies in modern politics, arguing that the emergence of a heightened sectarian discourse is part of the surge of the “cultures of the right” following the debacle of the popular uprising.

Finally, I have not abandoned my drug-related work. My interest is now focused on the cultural place of “addiction” in Iran and the Arab world since the late nineteenth century to the present. I look at the lived experience of consumption, its encounter with changing public codes of conduct and, crucially, ways in which people attempt at recovery from “addiction.” This has led me to carry out some ethnographic fieldwork on new forms of “addictions,” such as those related to the use of digital media. I combine traditional ethnographic note-taking with the use of photography and video-recording to highlight the importance of images in the production of virtual performance among rural communities. There is a whole story that needs to be told, one that could highlight how “addiction” as a diagnostic frame is culturally constructed and defined by historical processes that often go unnoticed. This, in my view, should also enable new scholarship in the broader field of “Middle Eastern Studies,” with new topics, transdisciplinary approaches, and heterodox connections with global studies of health and society.


Excerpt from the book 

From Chapter 6: The Anthropological Mutation of Methamphetamines

The ‘Crisis’ of Shisheh and Its Narratives

If one combines the widespread use of antidepressant drugs with the impressive rise in psychoactive, stimulant and energizing drugs, most notably shisheh, the picture inevitably suggests a deep-seated transformation in the societal fabric and cultural order during the post-reformist era. In early 2006, officials started to refer to the widespread availability of psychoactive, industrial drugs (san‘ati) through different channels, including satellite TVs and the internet. They said they had little evidence about where these substances originated from and how they were acquired. Although ecstasy – and generally ATSs – had been available in Iran for almost a decade, its spread had been limited to party scenes in the urban, wealthy capital. The appearance of methamphetamines (under the name of ice, crystal, and most notably, shisheh, meaning ‘glass’ in reference to the glass-like look of meth) proved that the taste for drugs among the public was undergoing exceptional changes, with far reaching implications for policy and politics.

The most common way to use meth is to smoke it in a glass pipe in short sessions of few inhalations. It is an odourless, colourless smoke, which can be consumed in a matter of a few seconds with very little preparation needed. In one of the first articles published about shisheh in the media, a public official warned that people should be careful about those offering shisheh as a daru, a medical remedy, for lack of energy, apathy, depression and, ironically, addiction. By stimulating the user with an extraordinary boost of energy and positive feelings, shisheh provided a rapid and, seemingly, unproblematic solution to people’s problems of joy, motivation and mood. Its status as a new drug prevented it from being the object of anti-narcotics confiscation under the harsh drug laws for trafficking. After all, the official list of illicit substances did not include shisheh before 2010, when the drug laws were updated. Until then the crimes related to its production and distribution were referred to the court of medical crimes, with un-distressing penalties. The limited availability of shisheh initially made it too expensive for the ordinary drug user, while it also engendered a sense of classist desire for a product that was considered ‘high class [kelas-bala]’. As such, shisheh was initially the drug of choice among professionals in Tehran, who in the words of a recovered shisheh user, was used ‘to work more, to make more money’. Yet after its price decreased sensitively, shisheh became popular among all social strata, including students and women, as well as the rural population. By 2010, it was claimed that 70 per cent of drug users were (also) using shisheh and that the price of it had dropped by roughly 400 per cent compared to its first appearance in the domestic market. It was a ‘tsunami’ of shisheh use which took both state officials and the medical community unprepared, prompting some of the people in the field to call for ‘the creation of a national headquarters for the crisis of shisheh’, very much along the lines of the ‘headquartisation’ mentality described in the early post-war period.

This new crisis within the field of drug (ab)use was the outcome of a series of overlapping trends that materialised in the narratives, both official and among ordinary people, about shisheh. The narrative of crisis persisted after 2005 in similar, or perhaps more emphatic, tones. This new substance differed significantly from previously known and used drugs in Iran. In contrast to opium and heroin, which tended ‘to break the spell of time’ and diminish anxiety, stress and pain, making users ultimately nod in their chair or lie on the carpet, methamphetamines generally boost people’s activities and motivate them to move and work, eliminating the need for sleep and food. In a spectrum inclusive of all mind-altering substances, to put it crudely, opiates and meth would be at the antipodes. All drugs and drug use, wrote the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, have to do with ‘speed, modification of speed . . . the times that become superhuman or subhuman’. Shisheh had to do with time, people’s perception of time’s flow; it was the new wonder drug of the century, with its mind-altering speed and physical rush as distinctive emblems of (post)modern consumption. Opiates derive from an agricultural crop, the poppy, whereas methamphetamines are synthetized chemically in laboratories and therefore do not need agricultural land to crop in. Between 2007 and 2010, Iran topped the international table of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine legitimate imports, with quantities far above expected levels according to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). Pseudoephedrine and ephedrine are both key precursors for meth production, the rest of the chemical elements being readily available in regular stores and supermarkets. With Iran’s anti-narcotic strategy heavily imbalanced towards its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the production of shisheh could occur, with few expedients and precautions, ‘at home’. In fact, it did not take long before small scale laboratories – ante tempore versions of Walter White’s one in Breaking Bad – appeared within borders, inducing the head of the antinarcotic police to declare, ‘today, a master student in chemistry can easily set up a laboratory and, by using the formula and a few pharmaceutical products, he can obtain and produce shisheh’. In 2010, the anti-narcotic police discovered 166 labs, with the number increasing to 416 labs in 2014. The supply reduction operations could not target domestic, private production of meth, because this new industry was organised differently from previous illicit drug businesses and could physically take place everywhere.

The high demand for meth and the grim status of the job market guaranteed employment in the ‘shisheh industry’. A ‘kitchen’ owner who ran four producing units in Southern Tehran revealed that the prices of shisheh had shrunk steadily because of the high potential of production in Iran. In his rather conventional words, ‘young chemical engineers, who cannot find a job . . . work for the kitchen owner at low prices’, and, he adds, ‘precursors and equipment are readily available in the capital’s main pharmaceutical market at affordable prices’. The shisheh that is produced is sold domestically or in countries such as Thailand under the local name of yaa baa, or Malaysia and Indonesia, where there is high demand for meth. The number of Iranian nationals arrested in international airports in Asia hints clearly at this phenomenon.

Logically, shisheh and the shisheh economy appealed particularly young people, who exploited the initial confusion and lack of legislative norms. At the same time, while opium and heroin had largely remained ‘drugs for men’ (although increasing numbers of women were using them in the early 2000s), shisheh was very popular among women. For instance, the use of shisheh was often reported in beauty salons and hairdressers, allegedly because of its ‘slimming’ virtue. In similar fashion, its consumption was popular among sportsmen, both professional (e.g. football players and wrestlers) and traditional/folkloric (e.g. zurkhaneh). Its consumption appealed to categories of people enchanted with an idea of life as an hedonistic enterprise often governed by the laws of social competition, something that differed ontologically and phenomenologically from Islamising principles. Reports emerged also about the use of shisheh among students to boost academic performance. By making it easy to spend entire nights studying and reviewing, especially among those preparing for the tough university entry examination (konkur), shisheh had gained popularity in high schools and universities. The shrinking age of drug use, too, has been factual testimony of this trend.56 In an editorial published in the state-run newspaper, a satirist announced that, in Iran, ‘the modern people have become post-modern. And this latter, we know, is industrial and poetical’ and he longed for ‘the old good days of the bangis [the hashish smoker]’. Shisheh epitomised the entry into the postmodern world, an epochal, perhaps irreversible, anthropological mutation.

In view of this changing pattern of drug (ab)use, the authorities realised, slowly and half-heartedly, that the policies in place with regard to treatment of injecting drug users – harm reduction as implemented up until then – had no effect on reducing the harm of shisheh. Harm reduction could not target the ‘crisis’ of shisheh, which unwrapped in a publicly visible and intergenerational manner different from previous drug crises. Its blend, in addition, with changing sexual mannerisms among the youth, aggravated the impotence of the state.