Iran Is Conceding Much Less Than It Seems

The morality police force may have been disbanded, but enforced morality will remain.

By , a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy.
A fan at the FIFA World Cup match between Wales and Iran on Nov. 25, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
A fan at the FIFA World Cup match between Wales and Iran on Nov. 25, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
A fan at the FIFA World Cup match between Wales and Iran on Nov. 25, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

On Dec. 4, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri spurred surprise and controversy inside the country and abroad when he suggested that the Islamic Republic’s so-called morality police had suspended operations. His comments, however, were ambiguous. The “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement, which began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, seems to have scored a major victory. But has it really? And will reforms at this stage be enough to placate Iran’s angry masses?

The depth of anger on display on Iranian streets over the past 12 weeks is owed to the Islamic Republic’s consistent aversion to meaningful reforms. Over the years, even as Iranian society has become younger, more secular, and more detached from the ruling system and its ideology, the Islamic Republic has become more insular, repressive, and thus increasingly illegitimate in the eyes of many Iranians. The fate of the morality police is now a proxy for the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic’s approach to governance.

But it would be a mistake to assume the government's move represents anything other than an incremental shift—and it may be too late, in any case, for the theocratic system to reverse the social upheaval it has already wrought.

On Dec. 4, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri spurred surprise and controversy inside the country and abroad when he suggested that the Islamic Republic’s so-called morality police had suspended operations. His comments, however, were ambiguous. The “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement, which began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, seems to have scored a major victory. But has it really? And will reforms at this stage be enough to placate Iran’s angry masses?

The depth of anger on display on Iranian streets over the past 12 weeks is owed to the Islamic Republic’s consistent aversion to meaningful reforms. Over the years, even as Iranian society has become younger, more secular, and more detached from the ruling system and its ideology, the Islamic Republic has become more insular, repressive, and thus increasingly illegitimate in the eyes of many Iranians. The fate of the morality police is now a proxy for the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic’s approach to governance.

But it would be a mistake to assume the government’s move represents anything other than an incremental shift—and it may be too late, in any case, for the theocratic system to reverse the social upheaval it has already wrought.


The Iranian morality police, which was formally called “guidance patrol,” was established in its current iteration in the summer of 2006. It was made into a unit of the national police force and was described by a police commander at its launch as a patrol to “fight bad hijab and thugs.”

The Islamic Republic mandated compulsory hijab for women in public spaces in August 1983, a few years after the theocracy’s inception following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iran remains one of two countries, the other being Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, to maintain such a law. This dress code has been enforced through various street patrols since its creation, with one predecessor force known as the Islamic Revolution Committees. In the past, these patrols confronted people over various social redlines in addition to wearing the hijab, such as nonmarried or nonrelated men and women being together in public.

The contemporary version of the morality police has arrested tens of thousands of women since its inception over what its enforcers deem “improper hijab.” Hundreds of thousands of more women have been subject to humiliating reprimands and, at times, even insults in public.

Incumbent hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi stepped up enforcement by this widely loathed force during his first year in office, and the months preceding Amini’s death saw several videos go viral on Iranian social media of morality police beating and arresting women. In one video from this summer, a mother is seen wailing and throwing herself on a morality police vehicle to prevent her daughter from being taken away.

Against this backdrop and the ongoing protest movement, Montazeri appeared to say the days of the morality police roaming the streets are over. He proclaimed at a public event in response to a question that “the guidance patrols have nothing to do with the judiciary. They have been suspended from the same place that started.”

Although Montazeri’s comments quickly reverberated around the world, Iranians were more circumspect domestically. The government relenting on mandatory hijab would certainly be a victory for a protest movement that has seen women removing their headscarves and, in many cases, setting them on fire. Since the outbreak of protests, women are also increasingly going out in urban areas without any head coverings, a seeming indication of the morality police’s inactivity.

However, there have been signs that authorities are merely temporarily relaxing enforcement of mandatory hijab amid the outpouring of public anger. In fact, there have been reports in recent weeks that morality police members have increased their enforcement activities in more religious cities. For example, the Iranian Ham-Mihan newspaper reported on Dec. 5 about the increased presence of morality police in cities such as Qom, the heartland of Shiite Islam in Iran.

These developments suggest that the Iranian government has only decreased enforcement of the morality police in some areas while increasing it elsewhere. With that said, comments by other Iranian officials in recent days give credence to the claim that the force’s days may indeed be numbered. But whether this bears out in a meaningful way will depend on the Islamic Republic’s leadership fundamentally shifting its attitude on reform.

Within days of the Iranian attorney general’s remarks, hard-line parliamentarian Hossein Jalali struck a defiant tone on mandatory hijab. “The enemy thinks that if hijab and chastity are removed and Islamic covering is ended that it will mean the end of the Islamic Republic,” he declared. Jalali went on to say a new “hijab and chastity” plan will be enacted that will “increase the cost” for “improper hijab” in society.

Days later, Ali Khanmohammadi, spokesperson for Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil, an organization charged with implementing religious morals, shed light on this new plan to enforce mandatory hijab. He stated that judicial and police authorities had declared that the morality police’s “mission is over.” But he made clear that the mandatory hijab law has not changed and would be enforced by “newer methods that are more modern and precise.”

What will these newer methods look like? In recent months, Iranian officials have talked about using facial surveillance technology to identify women with “improper hijab.” Jalali also said such enforcement measures will start with warnings sent to women via text messages but can lead to their bank accounts being restricted.

Jalali also equated a “retreat” on hijab to a retreat of the Islamic Republic. This worldview captures the Islamic Republic’s general approach to social and political reforms. Any concessions to public demands to tangibly alter the theocracy’s rules and institutions have been viewed as a slippery slope that could endanger the entire system. This is especially true on mandatory hijab, which within Iran is viewed as a core symbol of the Islamist political system.

Calls for reform, however, have not been rare from within the Islamic Republic. For years, Reformists tried to usher in changes only to meet fierce pushback from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the security-oriented core of the political system. Although Reformists have been largely politically sidelined, they are being courted again by a system desperate for legitimacy.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, recently met with a group of political figures, including prominent Reformists. This included Azar Mansouri, the head of a leading Reformist party. At the meeting, Mansouri outlined what she said were necessary short-term and long-term reforms.

Mansouri’s recommendations included abolishing the morality police; freeing all political prisoners; ending the filtering of social media platforms, such as Instagram and WhatsApp; changing the composition of the candidate-vetting Guardian Council; revising the constitution; and preparing the grounds for “free and competitive” elections.

It remains to be seen whether the Islamic Republic will practically change its governance style in ways that address public grievances. The substitution of the morality police with other punitive tools, such as shuttering bank accounts, is unlikely to placate protesters and could push even more people to take to the streets.

For many Iranians, the Islamic Republic is irredeemable. The system has engaged in too many abuses, including killing at least 60 minors during the current protests, to gain any legitimacy. At the same time, the system is still headed by Khamenei, an 83-year-old intransigent cleric. Short of major reforms that go well beyond abolishing the morality police, it is likely that the Islamic Republic will remain a political system fundamentally at odds with much of Iran’s population.

Sina Toossi is a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy. Twitter: @SinaToossi

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