Iran’s Growing Rift Between Theocrats and Security Elites

In the aftermath of nationwide protests, tensions are rising among the Iranian establishment.

One consequence of the nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022 has been the widely celebrated retreat of the morality police responsible for enforcing Iran’s mandatory hijab law from the country’s streets. Another result has gone less noticed but may prove to be far more important: the increasingly open rift between Iran’s hardline ruling elites and the military-security establishment.

It was opposition to compulsory hijab that formed the epicenter of the protests, and given the symbolic significance of the intrusive Guidance Patrols, their disappearance was no small victory for the protesters. The sight of women walking on Iranian streets without the compulsory veil has become increasingly normalized both on- and offline, much to the profound chagrin of the most hardline factions of Iran’s ruling elites, not to mention their dwindling support base.

But this de facto abolition of compulsory hijab in large parts of public life is unlikely to have been the outcome of a conscious political decision to bow to the people’s will and to introduce deep, long-term, structural reforms. Far from it. Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code, the legal basis for the compulsory hijab, is still the law of the land and has yet to have been revoked or altered. (The article stipulates that refusing to comply with the state’s conception of “Islamic hijab” in public spaces is a criminal offense punishable by flogging, incarceration, and fines.)

Indeed, even as the protests were exposing the immense unpopularity of state control over women’s dress, Iranian media were reporting that within the confines of certain government buildings and financial centers, authorities were actually tightening, rather than loosening, their control over women’s attire. And as if to further inflame public sentiment, senior officials, including lawmakers and judiciary officials, vowed in a series of incendiary statements to double down on their efforts to force women to comply with a law that the vast majority of Iranians either despise or simply do not support.

For instance, a senior judiciary official suggested that encouraging others to remove the hijab was a crime worse than not wearing the hijab. Promising that authorities would make it costlier for women to flout the mandatory hijab law, a member of parliament suggested the bank accounts of women who didn’t follow the law ought to be blocked. Another lawmaker proposed that those in breach of mandatory hijab ought to be deprived of public services. Shortly thereafter, one member of parliament revealed plans to penalize women refusing to abide by the state’s ideal dress code: “First, a text message will be sent to the offender, and we’ll warn her. Then, if she insists on wearing an improper hijab, we’ll find her. … Her national ID card will be blocked and until she pays a fine for wearing an improper hijab, we’ll deprive her of all social services such as access to the country’s banking system.”

And if there were any doubts as to the seriousness of such calls, they were put to rest when Iran’s newly appointed police chief Ahmad-Reza Radan announced that, starting from April 15, there would be a renewed and concerted nationwide push to identify, warn, and penalize women who did not comply with the hijab requirement, not only on public streets but also in cars, commercial buildings such as restaurants and malls, and public buildings such as ministries and schools. To identify offenders, he added, the police would use cameras and advanced technology to capture images of individuals without proper hijab. They would then send text messages to these individuals to remind them of their supposed transgression. Radan also warned owners of commercial spaces, such as restaurants and banquet halls, that they would face warnings and shutdowns should they fail to enforce mandatory hijab on women within their premises. According to Radan, failure to wear a “proper” hijab while in a vehicle would result in authorities first warning the owner of the vehicle and later impounding the vehicle if warnings were ignored.

The reluctance to once and for all end state control over women’s hair is partly rooted in a deep-seated belief held by some hardliners that any concession on the issue of hijab will inevitably pave the way for much greater concessions on other issues, ultimately leading to the downfall of the Islamic Republic. This view has found expression in a series of provocative comments by officials like lawmaker Hossein Jalali. “It is impossible,” he said to a very small group of women who had congregated to voice their opposition to “improper hijab” in Iran’s religious heartland, the city of Qom, “for us to retreat on the issue of [the compulsory] hijab law. The end of this law means the end of the Islamic Republic.”

But it is unclear if such views enjoy widespread sympathy among Iran’s military and security leaders, who are cognizant that, for as long as authorities insist on enforcing such unpopular laws, public order and civil unrest can be called into question over a few strands of a woman’s hair, potentially undermining one of the Islamic Republic’s last remaining—and increasingly defining—achievements: security.

That the Islamic Republic has been facing chronic crises of effective management and legitimacy is no secret. The implications of these crises are most keenly felt when one inspects the dismal state of the Iranian economy, the gradual erosion of the political system’s legitimacy, the unbearably narrow space for political dissent, and the growing stifling of civil liberties. The state’s failure to fulfill some of its most basic responsibilities toward citizens has prompted it to increasingly bank on its security-related successes as a source of legitimacy to deflect domestic criticism. As a result, the provision of security has found new meaning for both sovereign and citizen. Increasingly, it is the state’s ability to maintain the safety and security of its citizens that acts as the primary metric according to which it is judged; good governance is disproportionately tied to the success of the security apparatus and couched in security-centric language. That Iran is situated in a region marred by turmoil and instability has only reinforced this trend.

But as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests have amply demonstrated, the inability and unwillingness of Iran’s hardline political elites to adequately acknowledge and respond to popular demands can at any moment spark a cataclysmic chain of events that could trigger potentially intractable security challenges and thus undermine the stability of the Islamic Republic.

If and when these challenges do arise, it is not Iran’s political leadership but its armed forces that will have to bear the brunt of political unrest. It is the security forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that will be called upon to restore public order by brutally cracking down on protests spurred by the stubbornness, indecision, and ineptitude of a hardline ruling elite that is both detached from the realities of Iranian society and feels shielded from the ramifications of social unrest.

The inevitable upshot of this very uneven distribution of cause and effect, not to mention the contrast between the priorities of Iran’s military and political leadership, is a potential conflict of interest. Still in an embryonic stage, this conflict may never evolve into a full-blown confrontation. Indeed, it is important to remember that despite the divergent priorities between these two forces, the interests of the IRGC and Iran’s hardliners align on many issues. Furthermore, the IRGC has until very recently been instrumental in helping Iran’s hardliners maintain and expand their power by excluding their political rivals from the political structure. A case in point was the IRGC’s pivotal role in securing Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to the presidency.

But this nascent conflict of interest may prove far more consequential should Iran’s hardliners continue to press ahead with policies that enrage public opinion, fuel social unrest, and jeopardize the hard-won successes of Iran’s armed forces. In such a scenario, the country’s military leaders may find it increasingly difficult to stand idly by as the incompetence of an unpopular political leadership manufactures one crisis after the next. The urgency to intervene more actively in the political realm is further reinforced by the realization that the question of who will succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, now 84, seems less abstract and ever more pressing with each passing day.

While it’s unclear whether the conflict of interest between Iran’s armed forces and hardline political elites will escalate into a full-blown clash, there are already signs of growing impatience among Iran’s generals over the authorities’ handling of the protests against the mandatory hijab.

Shortly after the protests were in full swing, a senior police commander spoke candidly about the despised status of the Guidance Patrols. “None of our colleagues wanted to work in this division,” he admitted. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the police quickly withdrew the Guidance Patrols from many urban centers almost immediately after the death of Amini in police custody.

Indeed, while speaking about decision-making and governance, Speaker of the Parliament Bagher Ghalibaf, himself a former IRGC commander, had no choice but to admit that “on some issues, we are not able to solve some problems, and when we do, we don’t do it in a timely manner.”

Even as authorities were speaking of introducing new measures to tighten the controls over women’s bodies, a media outlet affiliated with the IRGC openly lambasted the country’s politicians over the handling of the “crises” that had emerged following Amini’s death, especially authorities’ “contradictory statements and actions” in response to the unrest.

In another piece, an IRGC publication warned those who “willingly or unwillingly steer society towards a direction in which people are pitted against one another, not to mention the state and the law.” Calling this confrontation “futile,” the piece went on to acknowledge that “images of security forces warning” women over their hijab were “inciting” protesters. Furthermore, shortly after Radan’s announcement that authorities would be doubling down on their efforts to enforce mandatory hijab, Javan, a daily paper linked to the IRGC, published an editorial warning against “people entering into conflicts with one another or undermining peaceful coexistence over the question of hijab.”

And in mid-May, Javan’s editor-in-chief described the leaders of the country’s Friday prayers as being “out of step” with the progress and complexities of Iranian society. The editor-in-chief warned the prayer leaders, who are appointed by Khamenei himself, against making incendiary statements about unveiled women. He was most likely responding to the leader of Friday prayers in the northern city of Rasht, who left an official ceremony because of unveiled women seated in the venue. “I hold in contempt anyone present here who is not observing the hijab,” he said. “If I knew that this meeting would be held in this manner, I would not have attended.”

It remains to be seen whether the emerging conflict of interest between Iran’s armed forces and its hardline political elites will evolve into a full-fledged confrontation. But what is certain is that Iran’s increasingly powerful military-security establishment will find it more and more difficult to stand idly by as hardline political elites propel the country toward another security crisis by recklessly insisting on enforcing unpopular laws that do little more than inflame public opinion.

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