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Dismantling the Morality Police Won’t Satisfy Iranian Protesters

The Iranian regime is failing to quash widespread protests across the country and offering 'reforms' will not change this

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A protest in Teheran in October.
A protest in Teheran in October.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The announcement that Iran’s morality police will be dissolved, made on Sunday by Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, still requires official confirmation. As Montazeri himself admitted, the agency isn’t subordinate to the Justice Ministry, so he first needs to determine whether he has the authority to abolish it.

Nevertheless, both the Iranian parliament and the clerics have held discussions in recent weeks on the way the morality police functions and the need to carry out reforms that would reduce the regime’s conflict with its own citizens, especially women, over wearing the hijab.

Ahmad Rastineh, chairman of parliament’s cultural committee, which is responsible for enacting the country’s morality laws, accused the government institutions responsible for “explaining the hijab issue” of weakness and even failure on Sunday.

“We must take the route of persuasion against those who remove the hijab,” he said in remarks reported by the Iranian website KhaberOnline, among others. “We will soon prepare a comprehensive plan of persuasion and explanation for citizens who may not understand that this type of protest is mistaken. There are people who don’t want to be persuaded, but when this is the law in the Islamic system, they have to obey the law.”

Women run away from anti-riot police during a protest in downtown Tehran, Iran, in September.Credit: AP

He also said that Iran has dozens of institutions and organizations responsible for implementing the law requiring women to wear the hijab, including schools, universities and other public institutions, but they have failed at their explanatory task. His committee will therefore prepare a detailed report on their conduct, he added.

Montazeri, meanwhile, neglected to say how the hijab law, “which represents the line separating the West from Islamic culture,” would be enforced from now on – specifically, whether the morality police’s powers would be transferred to other enforcement agencies, like the police. He also didn’t specify when, if at all, the morality police would actually be dismantled.

But Iranian protesters said on social media on Sunday that they don’t intend to stop their protests despite Montazeri’s announcement, because they consider it meaningless as long as the law requiring women to wear a hijab remains in force.

“The regime has enough ways of enforcing this discriminatory law, which undermines women’s freedom and human rights in general, even without the morality police,” one Iranian woman explained on Twitter. “The attorney general’s announcement may prove to be an attempt to divide our forces and dismantle the protests.”

Protesters announced that they plan to hold mass demonstrations for the next three days, and if necessary, after that as well. Nevertheless, insofar as it’s possible to judge by social media, which is closely supervised, they are talking about general principles like freedom, respect for women and human rights. They haven’t formulated any specific demands that could serve as a basis for negotiating with the government.

An anti-government protest in downtown Tehran, Iran, in September.Credit: AP

“Many people are talking about a revolution and toppling the regime,” one online commenter wrote. “But many others aren’t interested in that. They want to preserve the system, on the condition that it [will] be fairer, more humane, more considerate.”

But aside from the gap between protesters willing to make do with reforms and those seeking regime change, even those who would be content with reforms haven’t managed to agree on what type of reforms would satisfy them.

Another problem is that the protesters have no recognized leadership that coordinates their activities and that could represent them in talks with the government. But of course, it’s hard to organize leadership when anyone who becomes prominent in the protests is immediately targeted by the government and either jailed or killed.

Right now, the protests are spontaneous, with more and more people joining in for various reasons. The economic crisis, poverty, unemployment and the cost of living are intermingled with demands for more human rights and repealing the hijab law. This also makes it hard to build a realistic agenda rather than one comprised solely of slogans.

At this point, the government could still neutralize one element of the protest – the hijab law, which has proven to be a powerful force for mobilizing demonstrators and fueling the protests. Montazeri’s announcement about dismantling the morality police indicates that the regime is heading in this direction. This decision wouldn’t require negotiations with the protesters and would leave the government with at least an appearance of control over the crisis.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi during the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. expulsion from Iran, in Tehran, Iran, in NovemberCredit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

Given this, Rastineh’s lenient approach to the protesters, who may not “understand the essence of the hijab”; his stated intent to take the route of persuasion; and the fact that he blamed certain state institutions is instructive. Rastineh reflects the mood among conservatives in parliament, who recognize the depth of the crisis of trust between the regime and its citizens.

His plan to prepare a comprehensive reform, if it is implemented, means tasking President Ebrahim Raisi’s government, rather than either the system or supreme leader Ali Khamenei, with the responsibility of providing solutions to deter the threat to the regime’s stability.

The regime’s talk of “reforms” also speaks to the security services’ failure to suppress the protests, despite killing more than 300 demonstrators and wounding and arresting thousands. This does not only represent disappointment and frustration for a regime that has succeeded for decades in suppressing opposition, dispersing demonstrations and buying itself periods of quiet.

The bigger fear is that the people in power will lose faith in their ability to maintain the public’s obedience. And from there, the path towards shattering the hierarchy of supreme authority is short.

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