TEHRAN // Syma was only taking her dog for a walk but acted as nervously and furtively as if she were harbouring a fugitive.
Before leaving her apartment in an affluent north Tehran suburb, she swaddled her poodle in a sheet to shield it from prying eyes as she descended in the elevator. Her fingers were crossed that Champi would not yap with excitement at the prospect of a walk. "I take my dog out only at night and in very quiet streets. I don't dare take her out in the car during the day any more," said Syma, a middle-aged housewife who asked for her surname not to be used.
Syma was unnerved by a recent religious ruling issued by a senior cleric who proclaimed that keeping dogs as pets is forbidden. "Friendship with dogs is a blind imitation of the West. There are lots of people in the West who love their dogs more than their wives or children," Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi proclaimed in a fatwa last week. Dogs are considered "unclean" under Islamic tradition and many Iranians avoid contact with them. But it has become increasingly fashionable in well-to-do Tehran neighbourhoods to keep pet dogs - especially expensive pedigree dogs, which often serve as status symbols. Pet foods and grooming kits are available at most supermarkets in the northern suburbs of the Iranian capital.
"It's a sign of prestige to have the most expensive pet and buy the costliest accessories for them," said a student in north Tehran, who declined to be named. "My friends keep all sorts of pets - one even has an iguana." Ayatollah Shirazi said that the Quran does not explicitly prohibit contact with dogs, but Islamic tradition showed it to be so. "We have lots of narrations in Islam that say dogs are unclean."
Analysts, however, believe that Ayatollah Shirazi's fatwa was motivated more by anti-western sentiment and pandering to the working classes, which the regime champions. "The authorities can't stop people from buying expensive cars or clothes and jewellery," said an analyst in Tehran. "But they can prevent them from displaying their wealth by keeping pet dogs on the grounds that they are unclean." Despite denunciations by senior clerics against keeping pets, there is no law that bans buying or selling them. People caught walking dogs in public parks, however, can be stopped by police and fined.
A dog breeder who sells online said the recent warnings to jittery pet-owners have dampened demand for big dogs such as boxers. Customers are instead going for "tiny" dogs such as Chihuahuas that make less noise and are easier to hide during walks or car trips. "These cost between two to over 10 million rials [Dh740 to Dh3,700], depending on their age, size and breed," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Little dogs may be easier to hide, but are viewed with special suspicion and derision by hardliners who seemingly regard keeping short-legged breeds as a particularly effete western affectation. It is no coincidence that the recent fatwa against pet dogs comes as the authorities have launched one of their harshest summer crackdowns in years on those flouting the dress code or indulging in other "immoral behaviour". The government is determined to enforce what another hardline ayatollah, Ahmad Jannati, recently described as "ethical security".
There are exceptions to the taboo against keeping dogs. Using them to guard property is common and tolerated, although they are not usually allowed into homes. Sheepdogs are also acceptable and very common. And exceptions have been made for specially trained dogs that detect drugs or earthquake victims. In other words, Iran's religious authorities accept that if there is a pressing practical need that serves a greater good, dogs, although viewed as impure, can be kept.
The country's ruling clerics issued a fatwa in 1999 approving the use of drug-sniffer dogs after five were donated by the French government for use at airports and border crossings. It was a matter of expediency. Iran has been fighting a determined and costly war against drug traffickers from neighbouring Afghanistan, which produces 89 per cent of the world's opium, from which heroin is produced. Iran has lost more than 3,500 law enforcement officers in clashes along the remote border in the last two decades. With most Afghan heroin destined for European markets, the West has often praised Iran's efforts to stem the flow.
But by blocking Afghan heroin from reaching Europe, Iran suffers a costly spillover effect. No drugs are produced in Iran, but it is now believed to have the world's highest rate of heroin and opium addiction. Sniffer dogs have come to play a valued role in the battle against drug smuggling, helping to discover more than 20 tons of narcotics during the Iranian calendar year of March 2007 to March 2008, according to a recent official report. The dogs and their handlers are trained at a centre in Karaj, a town west of Tehran.
But there was controversy three years ago when it was revealed that the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad allowed his security team to use four bomb-sniffing dogs to search for explosives before he appeared at a national press exhibition. The conservative Tabnak website at the time reported complaints that the dogs contradicted the president's image as a "simple-life, justice-seeking, anti-luxury" leader. There was also grumbling at the cost of the animals, reportedly bought from Germany for US$150,000 (Dh551,000) each.
Meanwhile, those with pet dogs fear a return to 2007 when Iranian police established a "prison" for canines whose owners were caught walking them in public. One young woman at the time complained to Radio Farda, a US-funded Farsi language station, that her puppy had been detained for 48 hours before it was released on bail. The practice of imprisoning pooches appears to have been abandoned. But fear of Spot or Rover ending up behind bars is a common topic of conversation at Tehran's many pet parlours and clinics. Syma said with a shudder: "I've heard that if you are caught walking your dog in public it will be taken away and starved to death, and there may be a fine for the owner too."