Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iran's Morality Police Vanish as More Protests Loom

Tehran government eases a little but demonstrators brace for new standoff.
By Jafar Farshian

Iran’s once-feared morality police, who used to crack down on un-Islamic dress, entertainment and sexual practice, have become much less visible as the oppressive regime makes tentative concessions in the face of a wave of dissent.



Western music now plays freely in many restaurants and cafes across Tehran and no one harasses women for an improperly adjusted hejab.



And this month the ministry in charge of visual galleries announced that it would no longer require permission for them to hold exhibitions – something of a revolution in the artistic world.



The message to the dissenters is clear even if no official will come out and state it: we will make your lives easier if you just let us keep running the country.



The signs of concessions come as the authorities and the Green Movement – the opposition that has grown out of last June’s contest re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - prepare for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11.



This year the holiday will provide the opportunity for a long weekend, and the government is expected to grant an extra day off to encourage people to leave the city, so as to reduce the number of potential protesters. Many Iranians have made arrangements to leave the country for that week and most flights are fully booked.



By most estimates, the holy day of Ashura in December, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the most important day in the Shia calendar, brought several million people onto the streets of Tehran.



Which side they were on, the government or the opposition, was almost irrelevant as it became clear that the leaders of the Islamic Republic, afraid for their survival, are trying a range of new measures to diffuse the threat of future protests.



The anniversary of the revolution is an important date that is intended to highlight the nation’s satisfaction with the system, when all Iranians are expected to show their fervour for the revolution, and more likely this year, their love of the country.



There may not be a repeat of December’s anti-government demonstrations, however. Both sides in the current conflict have asked their supporters to come out for the event, but that means any anti-regime elements are likely to be swamped by a pro-government crowd.



If the growing opposition does plan to use it as a major day of protest, it has not made its intentions known. Green Movement leaders are already asking that attendees remain calm and peaceful, but show up in great numbers.



It can be hard for the government to identify who among the throng are its supporters and who are out to seek its downfall.



On Ashura, a vast number of women in chadors and elderly men joined the protests. Some military conscripts took off their uniforms and many others defied orders to beat people.



Some have argued that it would have been better for the government just to let the crowd have its day as, without confrontation, it would be hard to distinguish people’s political tendencies. In the event, they chose to be extremely brutal, and despite numerous deaths, Ashura will be long considered a victory for the opposition.



The regime is clearly worried that the opposition may pull off a repeat performance on the anniversary of the revolution. Trials have begun for the Ashura detainees, new laws with heavier penalties for using social networking sites and spreading protest information by text message have been implemented, and the authorities are talking tough, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty in numerous cases.



The opposition seems undeterred, but their plans for future protests have become increasingly opaque, which has given them the advantage of an element of surprise; no one really knows who will come out on the day.



It may also be getting harder for the authorities to pinpoint the rebels. Because the opposition is beginning to permeate all classes and win supporters among segments of the population with more traditional values, pinpointing a “Green” is not at all as simple as it was in June.



If the government is able a mobilise a show of support and clearly outnumber the opposition on the anniversary of the revolution, it may prove demoralising to some in the Green Movement, especially those abroad who are limited to understanding the situation through second-hand accounts and downloaded video and images.



Should the regime decide to crack down on protesters on the day, it will further underscore its paranoia. With a guaranteed high turnout of those on the government’s payroll, it will likely be unnecessary to suppress the opposition.



Evenhandedness and an awareness of the challenge it faces, however, have not been a hallmark of the state’s post-election game plan, as was evident at Ashura. Time will tell if the authorities have learned from their mistakes of the past months.



It is clear, however, that some are looking for methods to avoid further unrest. The regime’s strategists are experimenting with possible ways to reduce some of the bottled up pressure. A new series of televised debates may provide a temporary fix, although some reformist participants are afraid to appear. This is one example of a new, more measured approach to the political turmoil intended to lessen the power that foreign owned media outlets like BBC Persian and VOA have in setting the political agenda.



Even the most extreme hardliners are getting involved. At Friday prayers on January 21, the radical Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami softened his own call for protesters to be executed, this time saying that most of them were not seeking regime change after all, and that their complaints were resolvable and ultimately minor. This represented a complete about-face from a key spokesman of Iran’s extreme right.



However, the trials of dozens of Ashura detainees have begun and in many cases the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty. In one trial announced on state-run television this month, the defendant is the son of a martyr killed in the war with Iraq. The message seems clear: no one is exempt from punishment if caught.



As is often the case in Iranian politics, the easing of morality and artistic restrictions appears to have come too late.



The timing of all these recent events looks more like moves of desperation by a regime that cannot seem to get anything right any more. Now it’s just a matter of whether or not the mullahs can convince the Iranian public one more time that they have it all under control.



Jafar Farshian is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Tehran.