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Egyptian President-elect Muhammad Morsi speaks during his first televised address to the nation in Cairo on June 24.
One day after Muhammad Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential election, Iran’s Fars news agency issued an alleged interview with him in which the president-elect expressed interest in strengthening ties with Tehran.

The controversial piece, in which Morsi was also quoted as saying that he wants to reconsider Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, was quickly picked up by major news outlets, including Reuters, "The Christian Science Monitor," and the Israeli daily "Haaretz."

It seemed to be quite a scoop for the semi-official news agency, which claimed its reporter spoke to Morsi a few hours before he was declared the victor. Fars, however, didn't get to enjoy the coup for long. The veracity of the interview was questioned by several news organizations, including BBC Arabic and Al-Arabiyah, which quoted a Morsi spokesman as denying that he spoke with Fars. Egypt's official MENA news agency would later also report that the interview was false.

But perhaps more significantly, Iran's official state-run news agency, IRNA, was also quick to cast doubt on the interview. The incident provides the latest example of how the ongoing power struggle in the Iranian establishment has apparently pitted IRNA, which is pro-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, against Fars, which is said to be affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

A screen grab from the Fars website of its alleged interview with Egyptian President-elect Muhammad Morsi
A screen grab from the Fars website of its alleged interview with Egyptian President-elect Muhammad Morsi
Like BBC Arabic and Al-Arabiyah, IRNA reported that Morsi’s spokesman said in a statement that the president-elect had not conducted any interview with Fars before or after his victory. IRNA also claimed that an audio file of the alleged interview made available by Fars on its website was not Morsi's voice at all.

Fars, meanwhile, refused to back down, linking on its website to the extensive coverage the story received in regional and international media.

The hard-line news agency also attacked IRNA, branding the state news agency as aligned with "antirevolutionary" media for trying to denounce the interview and its "key and valuable points."

In recent months, Fars articles have attacked Ahmadinejad's inner circle, which hard-liners describe as a deviant current in Iranian politics.

Not to be outdone, IRNA last week issued a list of what it called "continued gaffes by Fars," which it said can lead to "security misunderstandings" inside the Islamic republic.

The list includes a Fars story about a large joint military exercise by Iran, China, Russia, and Syria that was allegedly to include 90,000 troops and hundreds of ships, tanks, and warplanes. Syria and China later denied the report.

IRNA also accused Fars of having fabricated a 2011 interview with former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Muhammad ElBaradei. His office also denied the interview.

In February, Fars fabricated references to Iran's sensitive nuclear program in its coverage of Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi's acceptance speech at the Oscars.

Some Iranians refer to the agency as "False news" or "Farce news."

Meanwhile, in the United States, a reporter asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland for her reaction to the alleged interview. Washington is wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East and is working to ensure that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survives the political transition in Cairo.

"Well, obviously we look forward to talking to President-elect [Muhammad] Morsi and his whole government about Egypt's relationships in the neighborhood going forward [and] its upholding of all of its international obligations, including obligations vis-a-vis Iran," Nuland said. "But that said, I wouldn't believe everything that you read on Fars."

IRNA, it seems, has found a rare point of agreement with the U.S. government.
Iranian police dump confiscated beer cans in Tehran. The possession, production, and consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden in the Islamic republic and police often raid smugglers and illegal parties. (file photo)
Wine has always been a part of Iranian culture. References to it even appear frequently in poetry.

But since the 1979 revolution, alcohol has been banned in Iran -- punishable by flogging, fines, and jail time.

Despite the stiff penalties and the confiscation of millions of liters of alcoholic beverages, Iranian officials say consumption is on the rise.

The country's newspapers reported earlier this week that the amount of confiscated alcohol has increased by 69 percent in the past year.

Deputy Health Minister Alireza Mesdaghinia expressed concern on June 13 about an apparent increase in "abnormal behaviors such as alcohol consumption," which he said has damaging health effects and goes against the religious and moral norms of Iranian society.

"Personal reasons are the most important factors which lead to the spread of alcohol consumption in society,” he said. “Some think this is a way [to cope] with their frustrations."

'A Means Of Escape'

Mostafa Eghlima, the head of Iran’s Social Work Society, suggests that drinking alcohol is a means of escape for some Iranians.

"Alcoholic drinks are just one type of tranquilizer," he says. "We live in a society where there is economic pressure, social problems, and high inflation. People escape with alcohol to alleviate the pain.”

The head of the Health Ministry's Policy Making Council, Bagher Larijani, warned last month about "worrying" reports from hospitals and physicians over high alcohol consumption in southern districts of Tehran where poorer families reside.

But he also said alcohol abuse is a significant problem in other parts of the country, and urged the government to devote more attention to the issue.

"We should be sensitive about this issue and pay attention to it even more than we do to other ailments, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases," Larijani said.

Officials say there are some two million drug addicts in Iran, many of whom are also addicted to alcohol.

Members of an smuggling group at the Iraqi border get ready to sneak alcohol into Iran. (file photo)
Members of an smuggling group at the Iraqi border get ready to sneak alcohol into Iran. (file photo)

According to media reports, every year up to 80 million liters of alcohol are smuggled into Iran -- a third of which is confiscated.

Other alcoholic beverages, including homemade Armenian vodka, beer, whiskey, and French wine, are widely available on the black market.

Iranians can buy bottles at shops that sell them secretly and bootleggers who quietly make home deliveries.

Homemade Liquor

Some Iranians also make their own homemade liquor. And Christian minorities are exempted from the ban. There are also reportedly some factories that covertly produce alcoholic drinks.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of reports about people who have died or lost their sight from the consumption of alcohol manufactured inside the country.

Last month, Iran’s "Shargh" daily quoted official figures, which suggest that it takes 22 minutes to get access to drugs in the Islamic republic and only 17 minutes to find alcohol.

Despite an ongoing police crackdown, Eghlima maintains that alcohol is widely available at parties.

"There is no wedding party without a special room for those who want to drink alcohol and have a good time," he says.

A man in Tehran, who asked that his name not be used, told RFE/RL that he sometimes had "a few drinks with friends to relax and forget all [my] problems."

"I know I can get arrested or fined but I don’t care," he said. "I need to have some fun."

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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