Iran's President Hassan Rouhani says police shouldn't enforce Islam
President of Iran Hassan Rouhani (AFP Photo/Don Emmert)

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said Monday it was not up to the country's police to deliver Islamic guidance, distancing himself from efforts to involve law enforcement in religion.

Rouhani, a relative moderate, last week faced criticism from the Islamic republic's clerical establishment and conservative lawmakers for insisting the police had no role to play in religion.

But in a speech to teachers on Monday he took up the issue again, saying it was for officers to carry "handcuffs and pistols", not to act like clergy.

"If we tell them you are the seminary and you can also interpret Islam, there would be chaos," he said.

"All teachers in schools, universities and of course in the seminaries whose mission is to better understand and express religion" have a responsibility to "teach, spread and explain Islam," he said.

"But you can't just tell anyone... (to) interpret" Islam, he added.

Rouhani last year spoke out about draft legislation that would have given more power to police and volunteer militias to enforce women's compulsory wearing of the veil.

"We should not be overly focused on one issue, such as bad hijab, to prevent vice," he said, in reference to women deemed not properly veiled.

The proposed law was later ruled unconstitutional.

And last month he told law enforcement commanders that "police should only enforce the law", drawing a rebuke from the country's powerful religious establishment.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the head of Iran's highest clerical body, the Assembly of Experts, said the government is "bound to implement the laws of Islam, and cannot say no to Islam."

Conservative lawmakers also wrote a letter protesting Rouhani's remarks, saying it was up to the government "to defend Islam in any meeting".

Rouhani was elected in 2013 to replace the more conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has faced resistance from hardliners on a range of issues, including efforts to reach a deal with world powers on Tehran's contested nuclear programme.