by Micaela Burrow
Western media’s celebration of Iran’s alleged disbanding of the morality police plays into the regime’s “propaganda” efforts to convince the West it is open to reform, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
After Iran’s top judiciary official remarked that the Guidance Patrol, a police squad charged with enforcing the regime’s head covering laws for women, had “been put to a standstill,” Western media quickly seized the event as a victory for feminists in Iran demonstrating against restrictive modesty rules. However, the morality police remains active, suggesting many in the West fell for the regime’s ploy to restore legitimacy and deflect international pressure, experts told the DCNF.
“Some of them say something not clear, something vague, and then they use it as propaganda for Islamic regime,” Fariba Parsa, a native Iranian and non-resident scholar of political ideologies in Iran at the Middle East Institute, told the DCNF, referring to regime officials.
Morality police, who form a component of Iran’s security forces, allegedly beat 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini to death on Sept. 16 for failing to cover her head, sparking the largest wave of demonstrations Iran has seen in decades. While the protests began among youth and women advocating for more freedoms, they have grown into an uprising against the regime.
Iran abolished its morality police, The New York Times initially reported on Sunday, hailing the development as a win for women’s right advocates and for the protest movement. Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri said the force “was abolished by the same authorities who installed it,” the outlet reported, citing state media.
However, that was a “mischaracterization” of Montazeri’s statement, Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained to the DCNF.
Iranian state media refuted claims the police had been abolished, and no other official has commented on the statement, according to researchers at the Institute for the Study of War’s Critical Threats program. Further, Montazeri lacks the authority to disband the force.
The NYT and other media outlets quickly hedged to Montazeri’s remarks and suggested that the move could represent a concession from the regime as it resorts to brute force to pacify thousands of rebellious citizens. The Associated Press reported “confusion” over Iran’s morality police Monday, also hinting at concessions.
“Initially it was very problematic, the way [media] covered it,” Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, told the DCNF. “That’s just a complete misunderstanding of the Iranian system and the primacy that the hijab (head covering) has.”
Even the revised framing of Montazeri’s statement — that it signals openness to concessions — could mask the regime’s intent in allowing speculation over the status of the Guidance Patrol to fester, experts told the DCNF.
“I don’t think this is necessarily a sign of the regime having a public debate,” Taleblu told the DCNF. Rather, allowing the issue of changing hijab rules and enforcement practices to surface is a “ploy… designed by the regime to erode protester morale and to prevent strikes.”
“I see it as not only a mischaracterization by the Western press, but as a psychological tool by the state against the street,” Taleblu continued.
Further, Iran’s hijab rules have not changed. The Parliament and the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council are scheduled to announce an opinion on the hijab mandate by Dec. 16, according to ISW and Critical Threats.
“Even if they remove this morality police corps, it doesn’t help for protesting or for Iranian people who want regime change” from an Islamic republic to a secular democratic government, Parsa told the DCNF. The protesters “believe the regime cannot be reformed,” she added.
The regime could have also scripted the announcement to “deflect international pressure in the West,” Brodsky told the DCNF.
Western leaders have pledged support for and solidarity with the protesters, who see their government as oppressive.
For now, Iran’s morality police appear to have scaled back operations in some areas to reinforce other units, according to media reports.
The reformist-leaning Ham-Mihan newspaper reported the police had scaled up operations in cities near Tehran, according to The Guardian. A Tehran-based journalist said the morality police, are so overwhelmed by efforts to suppress protests they lack the resources to monitor women’s adherence to hijab.
On Monday, Iranian shopkeepers and other blue-collar workers began a three-day strike, which could prove the largest set of demonstrations since the begging of the protests, according to Parsa.
“There is no evidence that Iranian women are under any less oppression today than they were a few weeks ago,” Brodsky told the DCNF.
The NYT, WSJ, AP, Paramount and the Iranian Embassy in the U.S. did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.
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Micaela Burrow is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Solidarity with Iranian Protests” by Matt Hrkac. CC BY 2.0.