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Iran’s President Has Had Enough of Its ‘Morality Police’

Hassan Rouhani isn't happy about the additional 7,000 officers patrolling the streets of Tehran.

Tehran, Iran - October 18: A young woman with scarf on the phone on October 18, 2015 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by )
Tehran, Iran - October 18: A young woman with scarf on the phone on October 18, 2015 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by )

On Monday, just two months after Iranian authorities shut down a smartphone app that tracked the location of the country’s so-called morality police, an additional 7,000 plainclothes officers were dispatched to comb the streets of Tehran looking for women whose hair wasn’t completely covered or cars blaring music too loudly.

The morality police have long irked young Tehranis, who have just gained a new and powerful ally: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a thinly veiled message on Wednesday, Rouhani attacked the practice of disrespecting “people’s dignity” and hinted that he would work to send the police back to their barracks.

“Our first duty is to respect people’s dignity and personality,” Rouhani said. “God has bestowed dignity to all human beings and this dignity precedes religion.”

Iranian police are controlled by the country’s armed forces and answer to Iran’s hard-line supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, but Rouhani has some sway in their policies through his control over Iran’s interior ministry.

Many young Iranians see the morality police as a nuisance and are waiting for Rouhani to make good on campaign promises to loosen the restrictions on what they can wear. Whether or not he carries through with that vow may affect his chances of winning the youth vote in next year’s presidential race. Older and poorer Iranians, on the other hand, are more likely to sympathize with the morality police as a safeguard against what they see as Western and un-Islamic influences.

Not long after his August 2013 inauguration, Rouhani tried to rein in the morality police by bringing what he called the “modesty project” under the authority of his cabinet. But as the announcement on Monday shows, Iranian conservatives have so far kept the police outside of Rouhani’s purview, stymying his efforts to liberalize Iran’s social spaces.

According to Tehran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia, the new morality police recruits will focus on whether Tehranis are violating social codes in their private vehicles.

“Confronting bad [headscarves] and removal of veils inside cars, driving recklessly, parading in the streets, harassing women, and stopping noise pollution are the priorities,” Sajedinia said at a news conference on Monday.

Unlike the existing officers, who typically detain offenders first before letting them off with a warning or fine, these ones will report license plate numbers to superiors, who will then summon the drivers at a later date for official reprimand.

Photo credit: THOMAS KOEHLER/Photothek via Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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