Iran: The Morality Police Press Their Offensive
An official campaign to enforce stricter moral standards in Iran, now entering its fourth week, is opening new rifts among the country's governing elites.
The crackdown has targeted mainly women who dress in an "un-Islamic" manner. On May 14, for example, authorities stopped 50 women from boarding flights departing from Tehran airport, citing their failure to conform to the country's dress-code, which mandates that everyone dress in modest attire and that females cover their heads.
Efforts to ensure compliance with the Islamic Republic's strictures have almost become an annual right of spring. From the viewpoint of conservatives, though, years of lax enforcement have created a cultural crisis, requiring immediate and prolonged action to rectify. Accordingly, hardliners are approaching the crackdown this year with a combination of dogged determination and a hint of desperation.
With Iran facing increasing international pressure over its nuclear program, and with the country's economy teetering, it would seem that Iranian leaders, including neo-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ought to have larger issues on their minds. But the dress-code crackdown is an issue that is immensely popular with poor and rural Iranians, who are broadly supportive of the Ahmadinejad administration. Thus, neo-conservatives, embattled on both the domestic and foreign fronts, appear intent on using the crackdown to mobilize their power base, and thus give their sagging political fortunes a boost.
Hardliner-controlled newspaper and broadcast outlets have railed since the start of the year over the decline of standards. After the crackdown began in late April, one hardline newspaper, Kayhan, published a commentary assailing judges for being too lenient on social "deviants."
The campaign itself highlights the unique way in which ecclesiastical concerns and politics are mixed in Iran. After the launch of the crackdown, the head of Iran's Law Enforcement Agency (NAJA), Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghadam, who also happens to be President Ahmadinejad's brother-in-law, made a highly publicized trip to the holy city of Qom to meet with the country's spiritual leaders, many of whom are vocal proponents of strict dress-code enforcement.
In Qom, Ahmadi Moghadam lashed out at judges for being "too soft," and issued a public appeal for authority to be stripped from the judiciary and given to NAJA. Qom's grand ayatollahs generally lauded Ahmadi Moghadam, except for one reform-minded cleric, Abdulkarim Mousavi Ardebili, who insisted that such crackdowns throughout the history of the Islamic Republic never achieved desired results. "Don't do things that make people turn away from religion," Grand Ayatollah Ardebili cautioned.
The neo-conservatives' attempt to use the morality campaign for political ends has prompted a backlash from not only reformists, but also mainstream conservatives. It's perhaps no surprise that, given the assault on judicial authority, the chief critic of the neo-conservatives is Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of Iran's judiciary. In late April, just days after the opening of the crackdown, Ayatollah Shahroudi severely criticized NAJA's tough tactics.
"Our officials and government agencies must look at international norms in combating crime and deviancy and try to adapt these models to local conditions," Ayatollah Shahroudi said during a meeting with governors. "We must exert maximum caution in dealing with social issues. Deterrence must be our aim. Often, heavy-handed tactics are quite counter-productive."
Not all members of the Iranian legal establishment agree with Ayatollah Shahroudi. A day after the ayatollah's comments were publicized, Tehran's hardline district attorney, Saeed Mortazavi, contradicted his boss, issuing a stout defense of NAJA's actions, while attacking the law-enforcement agency's critics.
Curiously, the normally outspoken President Ahmadinejad has remained silent on the morality campaign. However, in late April, Minister of Culture and Guidance Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi cautioned reformist media outlets against criticizing the crackdown. In addition, a presidential aide, Mehdi Kalhor, issued an open letter to NAJA praising its conduct.
There is little doubt that Ahmadinejad sees the present crackdown within the context of future political battles. Tellingly, NAJA officials, as part of its morality offensive, on May 1 shut down a chain of clothing stores. There was little to mark the stores for official attention other than the fact they are owned and operated by the Tehran Mayor's office, and the incumbent mayor, Mohamad-Bagher Ghalibaf, is widely considered Ahmaidnejad's likeliest challenger in the 2008 presidential race.
Ghalibaf, ironically, headed NAJA for several years prior to becoming mayor, and he retains a loyal following in some law-enforcement circles. As the NAJA chief, he was known to concentrate on the maintenance of law and order, keeping the agency out of politics.
So far, Ghalibaf has not publicly commented on the morality campaign or on the move against the stores, which operate under the name Baihaghi. Political observers in Tehran can only speculate on the motivation for the closures. Some believe the raids were designed to force Ghalibaf to take a position on the crackdown. Others speculate that the closures may have been a means to coerce Ghalibaf allies within NAJA into going along with the neo-conservatives' agenda.
Just about the only sure thing these days is that morality in Iran has again become politicized.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.