The comments by Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri that the Islamic Republic had disbanded its infamous morality police, after months-long protests, suggest that the regime is finally willing to make concessions. The latest spell of protests began in September after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, who was in the custody of the morality police for wearing the hijab (headscarf) “improperly”. Thousands of protesting youngsters, mostly women, took to the streets demanding an end to the mandatory hijab rules and calling for other reforms. The regime used repression and propaganda to bring the situation under control. Hundreds have been killed while pro-government sections have blamed “foreign hands” for the protests. But none of this has helped restore order. It was against this background that Mr. Montazeri said the morality police had been abolished and that the regime was reviewing the hijab rules. There is still no official announcement and the protesters remain cautious. But the authorities have not dismissed Mr. Montazeri’s comments either. A bigger question, however, is whether this would be enough to placate the protesters.
Iran’s theocratic system is unique in both its substance and functioning. While it ensures that the clergy remains firmly in control, it also draws legitimacy from presidential and legislative elections. Principalists, the status quoist defenders of the revolution, and moderates, who call for gradual reforms from within, are the main opposing camps in the electoral field. The reformists, including former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, often acted as safety valves in an otherwise tightly held system. But the two terms of each of these Presidents brought in little systemic change, leading to pent-up frustration. The U.S.-led economic sanctions made matters worse for Iran’s rulers. The clerical establishment responded by consolidating more powers in its hands. All branches of the Iranian state — the Presidency, the judiciary and the Majlis — are now controlled by the hardliners, who always have the office of the Supreme Leader. But this concentration of power in a few hands and the sidelining of the moderates seem to have boomeranged. The death of Amini lit a fuse leaving the regime in a spot. The sustainability of any system is dependent on its ability to reform from within. Iran’s post-revolutionary order has resisted the calls for reforms till now. But as the revolution ages and the calls for change get stronger, the Ayatollahs face their greatest dilemma — tighten their grip further, risking more blowback, or start gradual political and social reforms.