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Iran's state media denies abolition of 'morality police' as three-day strike begins

CNBC 12/5/2022 Natasha Turak
  • Some Western media outlets are facing backlash from activists over headlines claiming that Iran was abolishing its "morality police." 
  • The news – an interpretation of a comment by an Iranian official during a press conference – turned out to be anything but clear cut, and has since been denied by the country's state media.
  • Iran's "morality police" are responsible for enforcing the country's mandatory headscarf law and other strict measures that disproportionately affect women. 
A woman walks past closed shops along Satarkhan street in Iran's capital Tehran on December 5, 2022. © Provided by CNBC A woman walks past closed shops along Satarkhan street in Iran's capital Tehran on December 5, 2022.

Some Western media outlets are facing backlash from Iranian activists over headlines printed Sunday saying that Iran was abolishing its "morality police." 

The news – an interpretation of a comment by an Iranian official during a press conference – turned out to be anything but clear cut. The country's state media has since denied it. Many Iranian anti-government activists now feat it will distract from three days of major strikes around the country. 

So what happened?

Iran's Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, when asked over the weekend about why the country's "morality police," or Gasht-e Irshad, had become inactive, replied: "The morality police had nothing to do with the judiciary, and the same institution that established it has now shut it down."

He added that "the judiciary will continue to supervise social behaviors."

The question reflected the experience of many Iranians who say they have not seen the morality police on the streets since anti-government protests across the country began in mid-September. They were triggered by the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly.

This branch of the police is responsible for enforcing Iran's mandatory headscarf law and other strict measures that disproportionately affect women. 

A group of students burned some veils as a form of protest. Protest in front of the embassy of Iran organized by Iranian students living in Rome to protest against violence of Iranian regime and against death of Mahsa Amini. What makes these economic conditions more © Provided by CNBC A group of students burned some veils as a form of protest. Protest in front of the embassy of Iran organized by Iranian students living in Rome to protest against violence of Iranian regime and against death of Mahsa Amini. What makes these economic conditions more

But when several Western media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times seized on the quote to run headlines saying that Iran's morality police had been abolished, Iranian activists and country analysts responded with a torrent of criticism. The attorney general's statement has no effect on actual policy, they said, and he has no authority over that particular branch of law enforcement. 

What's more, the higher branches of Iran's government have not confirmed it, and Iranian state media has denied any abolition of the morality police. 

"No official in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the closure of the Irshad Patrol," an article from Iranian state-run Arabic language outlet Al Alam said Sunday evening.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic's morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. © Provided by CNBC A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic's morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022.

It added that "the maximum impression that can be taken" from Montazeri's comment is that the morality police and his branch of government, the judiciary, are unrelated. 

Many of the Iranian protesters and those supporting the demonstrations overseas fear the headlines are misleading and create a false impression that Iran's hardline Islamic government is making genuine concessions to the protesters.  

Instead, the government has announced several more executions of people who took part in the protests. Rights groups say that more than 450 people have been killed in the state's crackdowns so far, while Iranian officials say more than 300 have been killed in the unrest.

'Fake news'

Several Iranian activists and researchers used the words "misleading," "fake news" and "shame on you" in their social media posts criticizing certain major Western outlets for their headlines claiming the morality police had been abolished.

"So amazing how many news outlets are going with the 'Iran abolishes morality police' line based on a convoluted quote from one official," Borzou Daragahi, the international correspondent for The Independent, wrote on Twitter. "In reality morality police have been inactive since protests started, but there is no substantive news on their future." 

"Reports that Khamenei's regime has abolished the 'morality police' are fake news," Kasra Aarabi, the Iran Program lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote in a Twitter post Sunday. "This disinfo was propagated today to distract media attention from the 3 days of major protests in Iran which begin tomo. Why did mainstream media ignore this context?"

Nicole Najafi, a writer and activist, wrote in an Instagram post: "The laws and punishments concerning women have not changed. Even if they did abolish the morality police, this is meaningless, because Iranians want the regime gone … it's like Putin saying he offered a free dinner to Ukrainian soldiers as a peace offering. NO DICE."  

Protests have rocked Iran for more than 70 days now in what has become the biggest challenge to the government in decades. Unlike previous protest movements in Iran directed against issues like elections, living standards or a specific law, the current demonstrations are directly demanding the removal of the Islamic Republic, which was installed as a theocratic government following Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Three days of strikes

Iran's protest movement on Monday started a concerted effort to hold three days of strikes, with reports of thousands of businesses closed in several parts of the country. Footage posted to social media shows rows of shuttered shops. Teachers, factory workers and students are staging strikes and sit-ins as well, according to London-based outlet Iran International. CNBC has not been able to independently confirm the footage. 

"Nationwide strikes, particularly in key sectors, could be used to put time on the side of protestors while creating chaos and financial issues for the state," Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC.  

Iranian demonstrators take to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini on Sept. 21, days after she died in police custody. © Provided by CNBC Iranian demonstrators take to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini on Sept. 21, days after she died in police custody.

Coordinated efforts for organized strikes are growing in Iran. Leaflets and graffiti are increasingly used to highlight important protest and strike days. 

If the attorney general's comments convey one thing, Ben Taleblu said, it's "the imperative of keeping up domestic and foreign pressure against the Islamic Republic. And nobody understands this better than the Iranian people, who have been bravely protesting for almost three months now and are looking to amplify street power with strike power." 

The strikes are key for the protesters because any idea of real concessions from the government is likely a pipe dream, says Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian and analyst. 

"There have been signs that some in the regime are thinking of giving some concessions including relaxing hijab (headscarf) laws," Azizi said. "This is not surprising given the unprecedented nature of the revolutionary movement in Iran." 

"But," he added, "these are unlikely to go far since the leader, (Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei, has long not been interested in concessions, and knows that significant concessions can do the opposite of defusing the movement; they can encourage it further."

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