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Legal Matters

Like most things in Iran, the legal system is based on Islamic principles. The system, however, is not the strictest interpretation of Sharia law. Most of the same activities that are illegal in your country are illegal in Iran, but the penalties can be much harsher. For most minor crimes foreigners will probably be deported, though this is not an absolute. A few years ago a German businessman was sentenced to death for having sex with an unmarried Muslim woman, though he was eventually released after serving about two years in jail. The penalties for drug or alcohol use and smuggling are harsh. Carrying the smallest amount of hashish can result in a minimum six-month jail sentence; don’t expect assistance from your embassy or a comfortable cell. Trafficking heroin or opium carries the death penalty.

There are two ‘crimes’ that foreigners may not be aware of. Homosexual activity is illegal and has resulted in the death penalty for some Iranians. Deliberate refusal to wear correct hejab (the Islamic dress code for women) can also result in a public flogging (although a foreigner will probably be deported).

If You Are Arrested

In most cases, the primary motives for arresting a foreigner are usually curiosity, mild suspicion and the desire to appear powerful. In the unlikely event you are arrested:

  • Keep cool, you are a tourist (jahangardi) and this is just a misunderstanding.
  • It’s best not to reply to, or appear to understand, any questions in Farsi.
  • When you can understand the questions, they will likely be very detailed and you will be expected to answer. Do so politely, patiently, openly and diplomatically. Be complimentary about Iran and Iranians.
  • Answer your interrogators so that their curiosity is satisfied, their suspicion allayed and their sense of their own self-importance flattered.
  • Take special care not to incriminate yourself or anyone else, especially anyone Iranian, with a careless statement. Do not volunteer to show your photos if they include images of Iranians, who could be unwittingly dragged into something. Equally, don’t actively try to hide them as this will raise suspicions.
  • If things get heavy, ask to contact your embassy in Tehran.