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Iran’s restless government may be backing down

ualmost freaked out Three months of protests have spread, and Iran’s theocratic regime appears to be hesitating. In their first major concession since demonstrations erupted in September following Mahsa Amini’s death for not wearing a “proper” hijab, clerics suggested they were disbanding the morality police force that was detained at the time of her death. Attorney General Muhammad Jaafar Montazeri said it had been “shut down”, adding that an unspecified “cultural” approach would be used. He promised that by mid-December a decision would be made on whether to abolish the mandatory hijab altogether.

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It has been thrown on the street. The Morality Police’s “Guidance Patrols” used to patrol public spaces to arrest young women and haul them away for re-education, but disappeared after protesters started burning their vans at the start of the unrest. Millions of women discarded their veils, sometimes even burning them. Celebrities who previously spent money glorifying the regime followed the example of rebellious schoolgirls by showing up bareheaded. For weeks, the women who lifted their veils stepped away from the stern gaze of security forces. “It’s a different country,” said a teacher, marveling at the bald-headed women boarding planes and passing passport control.

Now the protesters want to change or overturn Iran’s institutions and rewrite regulations. For 43 years, the veil for women has been an iconic symbol of the republic, the epitome of its strict enforcement of Sharia law (Sharia law). Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, called it “the banner of the revolution”. “This is the Berlin Wall of the regime,” said a well-connected cleric. Bringing it down, he argued, would “mark the collapse of the theocracy”.

People in government want to preserve the old code. Security guards enforced “modest” attire in government offices and courtrooms, where clergy still sentenced dozens of protesters to death. Officials threatened to close banks and stores that served naked women. Voices from the authorities insist the attorney general has been misunderstood. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “every thug, every terrorist”, as he said of his opponents, must be punished. Since the protests began, human rights groups say some 470 people have been killed and at least 18,000 detained (see graphic).

But the ruling clergy, aware that the crackdown has failed to quell the unrest, is divided on what to do next. Speaking at a university in the capital Tehran on Dec. 7, Ebrahim Raisi, the always hard-line president, accepted “fair criticism” of his government. However, his bully boys beat up the students who were demonstrating outside. Some security staff are in favor of replacing the morality police with smart cameras that can link faceless women to their mobile phones and send them text messages of fines.

But leaked official minutes of the meeting called for an easier one. A spokesman for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s Janissaries, has suggested bringing back former president Muhammad Khatami to bridge the gap between rulers and protesters. Mohammad Khatami has come under scrutiny for his reformist views.

Even the most reactionary clergy, the pillars of theocracy, may be shaken. Most want to keep the veil and gender segregation, but question their re-imposition by force. “Even among conservatives, Khamenei is becoming a minority,” said one. Shia Islam’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani criticized senior Iranian clerics for cursing protesters from his seat in neighboring Iraq.

Either way, it may be too late for the concessions to work. Trust in the words of the ruling clergy has decreased. Many saw the attorney general’s remarks as a ruse to divide the protesters. Others think it’s just a reaction to the weather. The morality police usually lower their profile during the cold Iranian winters, when women cover up. Some think the government will simply give the morality police a new name.

Many Iranians want more than an end to Islamic dress codes. On December 7, students at a technical institute in Tehran chanted: “With or without the hijab, make a revolution”. Many Iranians feel emboldened that reformist clerics have exhausted their strength and want the ayatollahs, whatever their stance, to relinquish power.

The call for a three-day general strike starting on December 5 has received wider attention than previous calls. Many shops in Tehran, including the leading bazaar, were closed. Officials warned that venues participating in the strike would close permanently, but protesters had more impact by threatening to boycott those that remained open.

Still, the pendulum in Iran has a habit of swinging back and forth. In the 1930s, the secular father of the last king banned the veil and ordered his police to tear it off the heads of women. Today’s protesters yearn for a day when Iranians can choose for themselves when it comes to clothing, among other things.

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