September 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Since the creation of the Islamic republic in Iran in 1979, the acceptability of dog ownership has been debated by the authorities.
Iranian officials say that according to Islam, dogs are considered to be dirty animals, and people who own dogs are viewed as being under Western influence. Some conservative clerics have denounced dog ownership as "morally depraved" and say it should be banned.
Friday prayer leader Hojatoleslam Gholamreza Hassani, who is known for his hard-line stances, was quoted a few years ago as saying that all dog owners and their dogs should be arrested.
In the past, dog owners have received warnings or were forced to pay fines for having a pet dog. Despite such harassment, dog ownership has increased over the years, especially among young people in Tehran.
One of them is 23-year-old Banafshe, whose dog was recently detained in Tehran for 48 hours and then released on bail. Banafshe says she was walking her young puppy, Jessica, when Iranian police snatched the dog and took her to a dog "jail." The dog's crime was "walking in public."
Banafshe claims the police insulted her, but out of fear for her dog, she didn't protest. She said she told the police that Allah says in the Koran that nothing bad has been created in this world.
"They said, 'We want to get rid of Western culture,'" Banafshe said. "They said, 'You live in an Islamic country, it's not right to have dogs. Are you not Islamic? Why does your family allow you to own a dog?' They insulted me, they even told me that they hope my dog will die. But there was nothing I could do but cry. You can't imagine how badly I was insulted."
'The Police Must Be Laughing'
The new clampdown on dogs follows a recent order by the head of Tehran's security forces, Ahmad Reza Radan, who said it is against the law for dogs to walk in public. The order has left many people baffled.
Nadja, whose sick dog was arrested right after it had surgery, considers the clampdown on dogs ridiculous. "One day it's dogs, the next day it's [crime prevention], tomorrow they have to catch birds. The police themselves must be laughing at this," Nadja said.
Another dog owner in Tehran, who did not want to be named, said that instead of detaining dogs, officials should concentrate their efforts on improving the country's economy and other important issues.
Some say they see the move as government interference in their lives.
All detained pets are taken to a newly created detention center. Radio Farda reports that some dogs are housed amid piles of garbage and debris. Others reported that a very large dog was confined to a cramped cage within the dog "prison."
Dr. Javid Aledavud, the head of Iran's Society to Defend the Rights of Animals, told Radio Farda that conditions at the center are very poor and unsuitable for pets. He says there are no passages in the Koran about dogs being dirty.
He adds that sniffer dogs are being used in Iran in the fight against drug trafficking.
Iranian security forces say the ban against walking dogs in public is meant strictly to fight Western influences.
Reza Javalchi, the secretary of the Society to Defend the Rights of Animals, says dog ownership, more common in the West, is considered by Iranian officials to be a sign of Western influence. "But that is not the case," he said. "If we want to speak about symbols of Western civilization then maybe wearing a suit is also Western. These are issues that have become part of human life. Based on our research, domestic dogs were kept in Iran for hunting and guarding maybe long before it became widespread in the West."
Last month, a young person was arrested in Tehran for posting ads of his lost dog.
According to Mehdi Ahmadi, a spokesman for Tehran's police force, such ads spread depravity by encouraging dog ownership.
Activists say that officially no legal prohibition exists in Iran against keeping dogs as pets. But that is little solace to the dozens of dogs that kept in the detention center, or their owners waiting for the return of their beloved pets.
(Radio Farda's Mohammad Zarghami, Keyvan Hosseini, and Azadeh Sharafshahi all contributed to this report.)