SIXTH COLUMN

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bootleg Liquor in Iran?


As Liquor Business Booms, Bootleggers Risk the Lash

For more than 27 years, Iran's Islamic leaders have waged an uphill battle to cleanse the country of bootleg liquor.

Since the revolution in 1979, the government has banned alcoholic drinks and frequently flogged those who drank them. The small community of Christians and Jews was exempted, but could not sell alcohol to Muslims.

In the latest effort to curb the widespread consumption and distribution of alcohol, the new conservative Parliament recently increased the punishment for selling or drinking it. Offenders still get 74 lashes, but now also receive a hefty fine and from three months to a year in prison, twice the maximum sentence than under the old law.

Even so, one seller, who calls himself Allan for fear of retribution, says business is so good that it is worth the fine and the flogging.

"I tell myself that the fine does not even come to the tax that I should be paying," he said. "The demand is high and the income is excellent. It is hard to quit."

Every month, newspapers report that tens of thousands of bottles of illicit liquor are confiscated by the police around the country. The Mehr news agency last month quoted a senior security official, Gen. Hooshang Hosseini, as saying that the amount of liquor in the country was increasing at an alarming rate.

Despite the crackdown, there is no sense of an alcohol shortage. With one phone call, one can get anything from smuggled French-made wine to Russian or homemade Armenian vodka. One bootlegger delivers the goods on a scooter, wrapping bottles in black plastic bags and hiding them in a saddlebag. Allan puts them in the trunk of his car.

Before the revolution, about a dozen Iranian factories produced beer, vodka and wine. The Iranian grape is so good for making spicy wine that Australian Shiraz, sometimes known as Syrah, is made from the same grape that grows in Iran's southern city of Shiraz, which gave the wine its name.

In fact, the Islamic leaders are caught in a bewildering situation. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol and the Koran explicitly calls intoxicants "the abominations of Satan's handiwork."

But drinking and wine are integral parts of Persian culture. Mey, the word for wine, and Saki, the wine pourer, have been the central theme of Persian poetry for more than a thousand years.

Most poems by Iran's popular 14th-century poet, Shamsudin Mohammad Hafiz, who was from Shiraz, revolve around wine.
"A rose without the glow of a lover bears no joy," he wrote. "Without wine to drink the spring brings no joy."

Wine in ancient Persia predates the birth of French wine. The earliest evidence of wine making dates from 5400 B.C., in Haji Firuz Hills, near Western Azerbaijan Province, south of where the city of Orumieh is today.

"The French are in fact jealous about that because the earliest evidence in France goes back to 500 B.C.," said Rémy Boucharlat, a French archaeologist who works in the southern archaeological sites in Iran.

After the election of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, as president in 1997, the government allowed drugstores to freely sell pure grain alcohol, without the dangerous chemical methanol. Until then only doctors were permitted to get a limited number of bottles for medical use.

Since then more than 40 factories, some of which have imported machinery from China and Europe, are competing in the market. A thin plastic bottle of 600 milliliters, known here as pocket size, has few indications of medical use, but is available in stores for under $3. The common recipe is to mix one shot of alcohol with two shots of juice, preferably pineapple.

One factory, which produced beer and wine before the revolution, was producing 20,000 bottles of alcohol a day until the government forced it to add Bitrex, a substance that made the alcohol too bitter to drink. Its sales have dropped to 3,000 bottles a day. Nonetheless, the rule has not been enforced on all other producers, so pure alcohol is still widely available.

One senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the decision to permit such widespread production of alcohol was made to limit the number of deaths and casualties caused by illegal drinks. Some 19 people were killed in 2004 after drinking bad bootleg liquor. "A lot of people had turned to drugs such as opium because they were cheaper and more accessible," said the official.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the availability of alcohol only increased. Different kinds of liquor are now smuggled into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. Different flavors of Absolut are available on the black market for $21 a bottle; a bottle of Baileys costs $43.

Allan, the liquor seller, said he was arrested once during the student demonstrations of 2003 on his way home from a delivery. The police thought he was among the pro-democracy protesters. He said he was put in jail for a month and beaten every day until police officers went to search his house and found his basement full of liquor.

"From then on, it took me a day to get out," he said. "The judge asked me if they were for my personal use and I said yes. He fined me 12 million rials," equal to about $1,300, "and a month in prison," he said, adding that he was allowed to buy himself out of his prison term for a little more than $3 a day.

Business is so good, Allan said, that he selects his customers. "I try to avoid the alcoholics because they have no patience and they drive me crazy," he said, as his cellphone interrupted him every few minutes and he had to jot down long lists for delivery.

The only time business is slow is during the Shiite mourning month of Muharram, Allan said. His more than 100 customers are reduced to just a few. The rest of the year he works up to 18 hours a day.

"The only problem with the job is that it is hard to get married," he said. "Families are reluctant to let their daughters marry someone who can get arrested any day."

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