Yesterday, Iran reportedly abolished its notorious morality police. Today, we're not so sure. One would think that a story about a country abolishing a whole police force, or radically shifting a policy that is a bedrock of the regime, would require a lot more investigation. Instead, it seems that when it comes to Tehran, there is very little need to get the full details of what is happening.
This type of coverage of the Islamic Republic is not new. It wasn't so long ago during the lead-up to the Iran deal that we were fed all sorts of misleading stories from Iran. For instance, its supreme leader had supposedly issued a "fatwa" against having nuclear weapons. This was trotted out as evidence that it wouldn't develop one. But if that was true, then why did the West need to make a deal to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons?
See, it's a logical problem. If it's true that the country wasn't developing nuclear weapons, then why would there need to be a "deal" to cut Iran off from all avenues to making one, like making sure it stops enrichment and other activities? After all, these activities were just peaceful, right?
Nothing makes sense about Iran's regime
On December 4, almost every major news outlet reported that the Islamic Republic had abolished its morality police. The BBC said that "Iran's morality police, which is tasked with enforcing the country's Islamic dress code, is being disbanded." Now BBC says "uncertainty over Iran's morality police after official's 'disbanded' remarks."
The Wall Street Journal headline was "Iran disbands morality police, considers changing hijab [law]." The report said "Iran's attorney general said the country had disbanded its so-called morality police and is considering altering the requirement that women [cover their hair]." Other reports said "Iran has scrapped its morality police" or, "Iran says morality police abolished after months of unrest."
Around 12 hours after the first reports emerged, we learned that Iran's state media has actually disputed this "fact." CNN notes that Iranian state media has dismissed this claim. Many of the reports that had originally parroted the "abolished" claim, later added that an "official" had "suggested" this. Well, which is it – did Iran abolish its morality police or not?
Nothing ever makes sense when it comes to Iran's regime. For instance, we were told back in 2015 that if there wasn't a "deal" with them, then there would be "war." What war? Who was going to war? The argument was that if we didn't do such a deal, then this would lead to another Middle Eastern war, dragging the US back into the region, after it had left Iraq back in 2011.
We now know that this was largely just a talking point, diversion and illusion. Iran was already at war across the region. It supplies Hezbollah with missiles. It moved thousands of IRGC members and militia proxies into Syria after 2012 in order to back the Syrian regime in the civil war there. Iran moved ballistic missiles and drones to Iraq and has carried out attacks on US forces in both countries.
Iranian proxies in Iraq control a swath of the country. Tehran has supplied the Houthis in Yemen with munitions, rocket propellants, ammunition and designed for drones and ballistic missiles. Iran has already been and still is at war across the region. So what did it mean "a deal or war"?
Did Iran actually abolish its morality police?
Let's get straight to the point here. If New York City abolished its police department, probably we'd ask tough questions. What do they mean by "abolished"? Who will do the policing now? Where will the thousands of employees go? What about the unions? Who will patrol the streets?
Or let's say the US decided to abolish the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). OK, so people would wonder, how did that come about? Is this a presidential executive order? What happens to the offices of the ATF and the employees? Who will deal with alcohol, tobacco and firearms, the things the bureau ostensibly deals with?
THE BASIC questions that would be asked in most societies regarding the report of a huge change in law enforcement should have greeted this Iranian story as well. The "morality" police can't just be abolished overnight, can they? And if the actual organization is "abolished," isn't it natural that the laws they enforced or their powers would merely be transferred to some other organization? In many cases where countries get rid of one security force or one law, they merely replace it with another one.
Considering the fact the Iranian regime is rooted in suppression of women and policing how women dress, an issue that has galvanized the regime since 1979, the idea that women would suddenly be allowed to live normal lives, like in most other countries, would be anathema to the regime. This is a regime that is so obsessed with covering women's hair that foreign dignitaries and those doing interviews with the Islamist theocratic regime are asked to cover theirs. The obsession with hair, and making sure men never see women's hair in public, is probably more important to the regime than almost anything else.
The problem with the "abolishing" story regarding Iran is that the very same major media that have spent the last several years focusing on the importance of fact checking and preventing the spread of misinformation, appear challenged in this regard when it comes to dealing with authoritarian regimes like Iran. Authoritarian regimes prevent journalists from doing their jobs and they have state media that parrots the ruling party's views. Examples of this include China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and other dictatorships or authoritarian states. In these countries western media face challenges reporting on facts.
FOR INSTANCE, Turkey claimed last month that there was a terrorist attack in Istanbul. Within a few hours, Ankara had suppressed local reports and social media, and then state media claimed that security forces had arrested a woman who had revealed the whole terrorist plot. According to the official story, a poor woman from Syria, allegedly trained by "terrorists" had come to Istanbul and set off a bomb. The highly trained "terrorist" allegedly gave up all the details of the plot within an hour of capture.
That doesn't make a lot of sense – and reporters have never been able to find out where precisely the woman was from, or to see any Syrian IDs or interview members of her family. The story seems suspicious. But because Ankara controls the media narrative, it's hard to get any straight answers.
The Iran "morality police" story is an example of Iranian media wanting to report a story that may be part of a feedback loop. For instance, we want to think the protests are succeeding, and we'd like a nice bookend to the story: "Protesters got Iran to change notorious morality police and hijab laws." A win for freedom. OK, let's move on and get back to the Iran deal.
More difficult questions are ignored, such as what happens to the police charged with enforcing the "hijab" laws and chasing after people? Will they be subsumed into a new unit? Is the law really off the books? Can we talk to some Iranian women and see if it's true that they can now walk around with their hair uncovered? These would be basic questions that would be asked if a Western country abolished enforcement of drug laws regarding marijuana or other substances.
It's obvious that there will always be challenges in reporting about Iran. It's a complex regime that is also good at misleading the media; it is a fountain of misinformation. Therefore it's worth following the maxim: Trust but verify. So far, it's been hard to verify anything from Iran regarding changes to the morality and hijab laws and their enforcers.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.