Iranian activists are criticizing several Western media sources for publishing headlines on Sunday (December 5, 2022) that claimed Iran was dismantling its “morality police.”
It turned out that the interpretation of a statement made by an Iranian official during a press conference was anything but straightforward. State-run media in the nation has since refuted this. It is currently believed by many Iranian opposition activists that the three days of significant strikes will be diverted.
So what happened?
Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, when asked over the weekend about why the country’s “morality police,” or Gasht-e Irshad, had become inactive, replied: “The morality police had nothing to do with the judiciary, and the same institution that established it has now shut it down.”
He added that “the judiciary will continue to supervise social behaviors.”
The query reflected the perception of many Iranians who claim that since anti-government protests around the nation got underway in the middle of September, they had not seen the morality police on the streets. They were triggered by the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly.
This division of the police is in charge of implementing the country’s obligatory headscarf rule as well as other stringent regulations that disproportionately harm women.
Iranian activists and political analysts, however, reacted angrily when numerous Western media sources, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, used the quote to publish headlines claiming that Iran’s morality police had been disbanded. The attorney general’s statement has no effect on actual policy, they said, and he has no authority over that particular branch of law enforcement.
What’s more, the higher branches of Iran’s government have not confirmed it, and Iranian state media has denied any abolition of the morality police.
“No official in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the closure of the Irshad Patrol,” an article from Iranian state-run Arabic language outlet Al Alam said Sunday evening.
It added that “the maximum impression that can be taken” from Montazeri’s comment is that the morality police and his branch of government, the judiciary, are unrelated.
Many of the Iranian demonstrators and others who are supporting the protests abroad worry that the headlines are inaccurate and give the idea that Iran’s conservative Islamic regime is genuinely accommodating the protesters.
Instead, the government has announced several more executions of people who took part in the protests. Rights groups say that more than 450 people have been killed in the state’s crackdowns so far, while Iranian officials say more than 300 have been killed in the unrest.
Several Iranian activists and researchers used the words “misleading,” “fake news” and “shame on you” in their social media posts criticizing certain major Western outlets for their headlines claiming the morality police had been abolished.
“So amazing how many news outlets are going with the ‘Iran abolishes morality police’ line based on a convoluted quote from one official,” Borzou Daragahi, the international correspondent for The Independent, wrote on Twitter. “In reality morality police have been inactive since protests started, but there is no substantive news on their future.”
“Reports that Khamenei’s regime has abolished the ‘morality police’ are fake news,” Kasra Aarabi, the Iran Program lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote in a Twitter post Sunday. “This disinfo was propagated today to distract media attention from the 3 days of major protests in Iran which begin tomo. Why did mainstream media ignore this context?”
Nicole Najafi, a writer and activist, wrote in an Instagram post: “The laws and punishments concerning women have not changed. Even if they did abolish the morality police, this is meaningless, because Iranians want the regime gone … it’s like Putin saying he offered a free dinner to Ukrainian soldiers as a peace offering. NO DICE.”
Protests have rocked Iran for more than 70 days now in what has become the biggest challenge to the government in decades. Unlike previous protest movements in Iran directed against issues like elections, living standards or a specific law, the current demonstrations are directly demanding the removal of the Islamic Republic, which was installed as a theocratic government following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Three days of strikes
Iran’s protest movement on Monday started a concerted effort to hold three days of strikes, with reports of thousands of businesses closed in several parts of the country. Footage posted to social media shows rows of shuttered shops. Teachers, factory workers and students are staging strikes and sit-ins as well, according to London-based outlet Iran International. CNBC has not been able to independently confirm the footage.
“Nationwide strikes, particularly in key sectors, could be used to put time on the side of protestors while creating chaos and financial issues for the state,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC.
Coordinated efforts for organized strikes are growing in Iran. Leaflets and graffiti are increasingly used to highlight important protest and strike days.
If the attorney general’s comments convey one thing, Ben Taleblu said, it’s “the imperative of keeping up domestic and foreign pressure against the Islamic Republic. And nobody understands this better than the Iranian people, who have been bravely protesting for almost three months now and are looking to amplify street power with strike power.”
The strikes are key for the protesters because any idea of real concessions from the government is likely a pipe dream, says Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian and analyst.
“There have been signs that some in the regime are thinking of giving some concessions including relaxing hijab (headscarf) laws,” Azizi said. “This is not surprising given the unprecedented nature of the revolutionary movement in Iran.”
“But,” he added, “these are unlikely to go far since the leader, (Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei, has long not been interested in concessions, and knows that significant concessions can do the opposite of defusing the movement; they can encourage it further.”