When a famous Iranian artist hosted friends at his residence in Tehran last month, he served, as he often did, a bottle of homemade aragh, a traditional Iranian vodka distilled from raisins, which he secured from a trusted merchant.
His guests and his companion did not drink that evening, so he raised shot glasses to them and drank alone.
Within a few hours, the artist, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, 60, felt his vision blur. By the next morning, his sight was gone, he was delirious and short of breath. He was transported to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with methanol poisoning from the aragh, according to his partner, Shahrzad Afrashteh.
Mr. Hassanzadeh fell into a coma that night and died two weeks later, on July 2. His death, for something as harmless as drinking with friends, shocked and enraged many Iranians who found ways around the Islamic Republic’s long-standing ban on the sale. and consumption of alcohol, which is punishable by up to 80 lashes and fines.
Rather than stopping drinking, the ban over time led to a flourishing and dangerous bootleg market. In the past three months, a wave of alcohol poisonings has spread across Iranian cities large and small, with an average of about 10 cases a day of hospitalizations and deaths, according to official counts in local news.
The culprit is methanol, found in home-made distilled alcohol and counterfeit bottles, apparently in wide circulation, according to Iranian media reports and interviews with Iranians who drink, sell and make alcohol.
For many Iranians, the deaths are an example of how the Islamic Republic’s religious rules oppress ordinary citizens and interfere in their personal lives.
“Khosrow was taken away from us because of the lack of social freedoms. It was you who took Khosrow from us,” Nasser Teymourpour, fellow artist, wrote on Twitterblaming the government for the alcohol-related deaths.
Iran is still reeling from a nearly year-long uprising against the Islamic Republic’s rule, which erupted after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of morality police over allegations that she violated a strict religious law requiring women. to cover their hair and bodies. Many Iranian women are now defying the hijab rule and appearing in public with their hair showing.
After the death of Mr. Hassanzadeh, a collective of artists and writers appeared in exile statement saying that he was, “without a doubt, a victim of religious authoritarianism.” At his funeral, his partner cried, “Never forget they killed him.”
“Khosrow spent his whole life trying to preserve in his art certain ideals, rituals and lives of ordinary people in Iran. Drinking aragh is very much part of the social culture here,” said his partner, Ms. Afrashteh, in a telephone interview from Tehran. , the capital of Iran. “It’s like he was killed practicing his own art. Now you can’t even drink without fear in Iran.”
The clerical rulers who took power after the 1979 revolution, establishing a theocracy, banned the consumption and sale of alcohol in accordance with Islamic rules prohibiting drunkenness. Religious minorities are exempt. Over the decades, reports of methanol contaminations have occasionally surfaced, but not to the extent and frequency seen in recent months.
Even officials are now publicly admitting that the problem has escalated. Mehdi Forouzesh, Tehran’s chief medical officer, said at a press conference in June that the number of hospitalizations and deaths from methanol poisoning had risen sharply. In Tehran alone, he said, it had climbed 36.8 percent since the beginning of March.
From the beginning of May to July 3, at least 309 people were hospitalized and 31 died of methanol poisoning, according to Iranian news reports. But the real number is probably much higher because many cases go unreported for fear of retribution for breaking the law.
At least one lawmaker recently called for government action to prevent deaths. Abbas Masjedi Arani, the head of Iran’s Forensic Medicine Organization, said last month that 644 people died in 2022 from alcohol poisoning, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Many victims permanently lost their sight.
The reason for the latest sharp increase in alcohol contamination remains unclear.
“I don’t believe some businessmen suddenly decided to kill their customers all at once,” said an alcohol producer and seller in Tehran who passes by Soheil, defending his business despite the recent pollution.
“Trading and manufacturing homemade alcohol is already very risky in Iran,” he said. “No one wants to harm their customers and their business.” Traders, if caught, could face jail, with their inventory confiscated or destroyed.
The authorities attributed the increase in poisoning to reasons such as the use of industrial-grade alcohol in drinks, sloppy production, the greed of producers and disregard for safety in search of quick profit.
Many Iranians love to drink, and nothing has deterred them from a tradition deeply rooted in ancient Persian culture. Homemade alcohol and imported bottles of liquor flow freely at many parties, weddings and social gatherings. Some upscale restaurants secretly serve patrons vodka in pots of tea.
“Drinking alcohol has become a form of escape from our difficult circumstances and a way for us to experience some fun,” said Nina, 39, who like many interviewed in Iran asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution. She said the pollution crisis required proper oversight, but that she had little hope the government would reverse course.
Some Iranians have turned to making their own liquor. Mostafa, 34, said he taught himself how to distill alcohol by watching videos on the internet because he was afraid to buy the knock-off kind. He bought machinery for distilling rose water, took over a friend’s empty kitchen and started making aragh.
The police discovered underground distilleries in a veterinary clinic, a roadside shack, a deodorant factory and abandoned warehouses. The bottled liquor business may involve underground operations that pay scavengers to collect vodka and whiskey bottles from the trash to be filled with bottling alcohol and sold as imported brand labels, according to interviews and media reports.
Experts say it’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to detect deadly methanol, which doesn’t smell or taste different from ethanol, in a drink. Home distillation increases the risk of methanol poisoning, they say, if the process is not carried out carefully and correctly.
Some Iranians shrug at the risks and down the shots. Others weigh their options carefully, choosing one type of alcohol over another.
The choices can have dire consequences. At a New Year’s party in Tabriz, a 49-year-old man named Majid drank whiskey he thought was imported; within minutes, he was screaming in pain, and he died a few days later, according to his family. A man in Shiraz drank homemade aragh and became permanently blind.
Mr. Hassanzadeh, the artist, did not trust the brand-name bottles and preferred homemade aragh, relying on a dealer he trusted, his partner said. Friends tried to contact the businessman, but he did not answer his phone. Someone spotted him at Mr. Hassanzadeh’s funeral.