Iran’s moral police: Is this the end of the regime’s notorious force?

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An Iranian official’s comment that the country’s morality police had been shut down has raised more questions than answers.

Rushed clarifications from state media attempting to refute the official’s comment quickly followed, along with social media pushback from activists denying the so-called victory and even denouncing it as a “relationship stunt public” of the Iranian regime to silence the protesters.

Experts caution against buying into promises of abolishing moral policing or the hijab law it seeks to enforce, noting that regimes will often make empty promises to citizens in desperate attempts to quell unrest.

During a religious conference Saturday in the city of Qom, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said Iran’s moral police were being “abolished,” a comment that was quickly picked up by international media, some of which praised the ” announcement” as a victory for Iranians who have been protesting against the government for months.

Montazeri’s comment was in response to a reporter who asked if the country’s morality police – or “orientation patrol” – was falling apart. The attorney general was quoted by Iranian state media as saying: “The moral police have nothing to do with the judiciary. It was abolished from the very place it was launched.”

The comment may have been misinterpreted and the state media’s tone quickly changed.

On Sunday, state media sought to downplay Montazeri’s comments, saying the moral police are not under the authority of the judiciary.

Arabic-language state television Al-Alam said foreign media described Montazeri’s comments as “a retreat by the Islamic Republic from its stance on the hijab and religious morality as a result of the protests,” but that all this could be understood from his comments were that the moral police was not directly related to the judiciary.

“No official of the Islamic Republic of Iran has said that the Orientation Patrol has been shut down,” Al-Alam said late Sunday.

The decision to dismantle the moral police technically rests with the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, a body established in the early 1980s by Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, and today headed by President Ebrahim Raisi.

CNN has reached out to Iran’s interior ministry and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution for comment.

Montazeri’s comments about the morality police came just two days after reformist media Entekhab reported that Iran’s parliament and judiciary were reviewing the country’s mandatory hijab law, which is under in force since 1983.

A law enforcement body with access to power, weapons and detention centers, the moral police is a major grievance for Iranians. Known for terrorizing citizens while enforcing the country’s conservative rules, the morality police have been the main coercive tool for implementing Iran’s hijab law.

The morality police came into the international spotlight in September when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died three days after being forcibly detained and taken to a “re-education” centre. The group is sanctioned by the United States and the European Union.

Since the protesters took to the streets, however, witnesses say moral policing has all but disappeared from Tehran’s streets, greatly diminishing the state’s ability to regulate women’s dress codes.

“We see a lot of images, photos, videos of women in public places walking around without the hijab much more than we had seen before September this year,” Iranian-American journalist and political analyst Negar Mortazavi told CNN on Monday.

As Iranian security forces struggle to shut down protests, enforcing the hijab may no longer be a priority, Sadjadpour says.

“This is not because their ideology has changed,” he told CNN, “but because their repressive bandwidth is limited.”

The absence of moral policing on the streets also raised questions about its relevance. While its abolition would count as a victory for the protesters, experts say, there are other, deeper grievances that are driving the protesters to the streets.

“When dictatorships know they have problems they start promising their citizens that they will change who they are.” wrote Karim Sadjadpoursenior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.

“These empty promises tend to encourage, rather than stifle, popular demands for fundamental change,” he wrote on Twitter. “The Iranian regime appears to be entering this stage of its life cycle.”

Omid Memarian, a US-based Iran analyst, said moral policing had “already become irrelevant” in the wake of the ongoing protests. “When people across the country are chanting, ‘The Islamic Republic should go,’ these movements seem desperate. The regime is incapable of addressing real grievances.” he wrote on Twitter.

Others worry that the Iranian regime is simply “rebranding” the morality police, in an effort to distance itself from its ominous name while maintaining a tight grip on the mandatory hijab.

“In a way it’s been interpreted as a play on words because he’s basically saying there’s no moral police, no targeting patrol,” Mortazavi said. “It’s somehow been replaced or rebranded as public safety police.”

Mortazavi went on to say that moral policing has become “so notorious” that no official is “willing to take responsibility for it” and it is unclear “how sustainable it will be in the long term”.

“It comes down to how the enforcement of this law that’s still on paper is going to stop or change,” he said. “It will either come back after a different brand or a different name or different methods.”

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