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Dog lovers face backlash as Iranian authorities challenge pet trade

TEHRAN--Iran is again cracking down on people with pet dogs, viewed as unclean in Islam, but Soroush Mobaraki says sales are booming despite fears the pooches might be “arrested” and their owners fined.

The veterinary pharmacologist, sitting in the small Tehran pet shop he owns, said “there has been a sharp increase in demand for dogs in recent years.

“We sell 15 to 20 dogs a month, but I know some other traders who sell many more,” said Mobaraki, aged 34.

For decades, keeping dogs as pets was a rarity and thus tolerated in Iran, where the Islamic beliefs cherished by the vast majority of traditional Iranians consider dogs as “najis,” or unclean.

Guard dogs, sheep dogs and hounds have always been acceptable, but the soaring number of pets acquired by a middle class keen to imitate Western culture has alarmed the authorities in recent years.

They have now criminalized walking dogs in public, or driving them around the city.

“You see, for me, she is not only a pet but a family member,” 28-year-old Nahal, who declined to give her full name, said of her two-year-old Pomeranian.

Mobaraki says many Iranians today boast about their pets, and some even show off in style.

“They want to have a dog (to brag), like they want to have an expensive luxury car.”

Reports of lap dogs dressed in Western designer clothes and accessories, being driven in fancy cars, or walked in parks in affluent Tehran neighborhoods have drawn the ire of hard-line clerics.

Fighting Western influence

In June 2010, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirzi labeled dog companionship as “a blind imitation” of Western culture, warning that such behavior would lead to family corruption and damage societal values.

“Many people in the West love their dogs more than their wives and children,” the ayatollah was quoted in the media as saying.

Those remarks, and a decree issued by Shirzi, gave ground to the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance forbidding all media from publishing advertisements about pets.

The restrictions, implemented in 2010, forced many breeders to keep their dogs out of sight.

“We are not allowed to keep them in pet shops,” said Mobaraki, who spoke of his safe haven in a garden outside Tehran. “I only bring them here when I have struck a deal in advance with the buyer.”

The popularity of the un-Islamic trend has also forced the police to reinforce its sporadic crackdown on dogs.

Police “will confront those who walk their dogs in the streets. Cars carrying dogs will also be impounded,” deputy police chief Ahmad Reza Radan said in April, according to the Fars news agency.

Animal rights activists have questioned the legality of the crackdown.

“There are no laws that forbid dog ownership, or their transportation,” said the Iranian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in an open letter to Radan's boss, police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moqadam.

The society's complaint against what it called “a widespread arrest of dogs,” in which dozens had been taken to “undisclosed locations,” never received a police response.

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