Iran’s protest movement: 'The tipping point isn't far away'
Iran has been rocked by two months of protests since Amini's death in custody Delil SOULEIMAN AFP/File

As the protest movement in Iran continues to grow in intensity following fresh calls for another three-day strike, the prosecutor general made the surprise announcement on Saturday that the country’s morality police, the group responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini which sparked the protests, had been abolished. The declaration was initially seen as a retreat by the regime but has done little to pacify dissent.

As he answered questions following a speech in the city of Qom on December 3, few expected the surprise announcement from Iran’s prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri: he seemed to confirm that the morality police, created in 2006, had been abolished.

Iran’s morality police have been one of the targets for protestors, along with the country’s Islamic Republic leadership, since officers arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September for failing to wear her headscarf properly. Amini later died in police custody, sparking nationwide and then international protests.

As such, Montazeri’s statement seemed to confirm a victory for protesters. “The morality police have nothing to do with judicial power and have been abolished by those who created them,” he said, according to Isna news agency, before adding: “Of course, judicial powers will continue to police morals in society.”

But two days later, the future of Iran’s morality police remains unclear. For historian and Iran specialist Jonathan Piron, the government seems more inflexible than ever, contrary to the prosecutor general’s announcement.

“The morality police haven’t been abolished in Iran,” he said. “The prosecutor general’s words were ambiguous and were misinterpreted. The obligation for women to wear headscarves is not up for debate and authorities haven’t made any concessions on this point. They are continuing policies of oppression.”

Hijab 'part of the regime’s DNA'

The US and Germany said on Monday that they had seen “no improvement” in conditions for women in Iran. Since protests began in September, at least 448 people have been killed and 18,000 imprisoned in Iran, human rights organizations have reported.

Revising obligations for women to wear the hijab, first enforced in 1983, does not seem like a step the authorities are willing to take. “The regime cannot go back on the decision to make headscarves mandatory for women,” said David Rigoulet-Roze, researcher and Middle East specialist at France’s Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS). “If it did so, it would be as if it were denouncing itself. The hijab is part of its DNA. From this perspective, the regime cannot be reformed, because it cannot change its very identity.”

Rigoulet-Roze fears that as more women remove their headscarves as a symbol of defiance, violent reprisals will increase.

Yet widespread dissent continues. On Monday protests were reported by the BBC in Tehran and other cities around Iran. Images show women taking off their head coverings and, increasingly, shouting anti-regime slogans calling for the government and the Supreme Leader to be removed.

Also on Monday, the director of a chain of shops was taken for questioning by authorities for serving female customers with uncovered hair, Persian service Radio Farda reported. In Tehran, an amusement park has also been closed as employees refused to wear headscarves.

It is hard to envision a scenario that would see Iran’s female protesters start wearing headscarves again, said Rigoulet-Roze. “They will no longer wear the veil, preferring to risk their lives. The point of no return has probably been reached. Even women who still want to wear headscarves support those who don’t and the freedom of choice that they are fighting for.”

'A revolution in the making'

In this context, the statement announcing the abolition of the morality police is likely to be an attempt by authorities to divert attention, especially since it came the day before a planned three-day national strike.

“It seems like a way to test public reaction with a statement that is deliberately unclear and enigmatic,” said Rigoulet-Roze. The authorities’ announcement “happened just before the three-day strikes were confirmed for the following week on social media, so perhaps it was a test to see if that type of announcement could defuse the situation.”

If this was the goal, it was unsuccessful. Strikes went ahead as planned on Monday in shops and universities in multiple cities, such as Shahin Shahr near Isfahan, where the movement is strongly supported.

Notably, employees in a petrochemical factory in Mahshahr also went on strike in a move that will not have gone unnoticed by the authorities. Such worker strikes have strong symbolic power, as in 1978 a widespread strike in petrochemical factories led to the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of the Imperial State of Iran.

Some 500 contract workers at the factory in Mahshahr went on strike on Sunday, according to Radio Farda, to push for a salary increase. Simmering dissent is proof, according to Iranian sociologist Azadeh Kian, that the Iranian government is now facing a “revolution in the making”.

“Shopkeepers who were very close to the regime mostly observed the strike on Monday, as did petrochemical factory workers, metalworkers, truck drivers, school and university students and teachers,” she said. “The movement is growing, not getting weaker.”

Yet while the scale and duration of protests are already unprecedented, the tipping point that turns dissent into full-blown revolution has not been reached – yet. “Young people aren’t afraid anymore, unlike previous generations. The fear has switched sides, as they say today in Iran,” said Rigoulet-Roze.

In fact, many young protesters are now supported by their parents and grandparents. “The situation is totally unprecedented, even if there has yet to be the convergence of struggles that brings together society as a whole,” Rigoulet-Roze added. “The tipping point hasn’t been reached, but it isn't far away.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.