The announcement of a 7,000-strong undercover morality police force in Tehran has been met with wide domestic criticism. Tehran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia, defended the decision and attempted to downplay fears that the force would focus on reporting poorly veiled women.
“Creating calm and security in the country, especially in Tehran, is what the people expect from the police,” Sajedinia said April 21. He added that “moral security” is not only concerned with women’s veiling but also other social harms such as drug abuse, theft, drug smuggling and gangs of violent criminals.
Regarding fears that the new force would turn into a rogue group of plainclothes officers harassing Iranians on the street, Sajedinia said, “In the case that a crime is witnessed, they will only give the necessary information to police centers and under no conditions will the officers confront anyone face to face.”
Sajedinia added that the undercover officers meet strict predetermined criteria and will operate under the full supervision of the police department. He also said that the police would coordinate all the force's activities with the judiciary. Addressing concerns about the possible misuse of power by the undercover officers, Sajedinia said that Iranians who wish to file a complaint would be able to call the police department and that their complaints would be addressed in the “shortest possible amount of time.”
When Sajedinia introduced the undercover officers in an April 18 ceremony, the news made international headlines and filled the front pages of Iranian newspapers. A picture of the undercover officers standing in rows at the ceremony quickly went viral. Aftab-e Yazd ran the image on its front page with the headline, “The morality police went undercover.” The word “undercover” was highlighted in red and the subtext announced that the force would be responsible for reporting poorly veiled women.
An article in Reformist Etemad reported that the picture of the undercover officers showed the “faces of individuals that we pass every day.” The author seemed not to find it strange that the individuals' faces were made public. Another Etemad article cast doubt on inexperienced or under-trained officers becoming involved in investigating such varied issues as veiling and drug use.
Many Iranians have expressed skepticism and concern online. Some said that even if the officers do not physically confront Iranians on the street, they could create distrust between citizens. There are also concerns that Iranians who appear more religious could be falsely accused of being undercover officers.
President Hassan Rouhani has also been critical of the measure. During a Cabinet meeting April 20, without directly addressing the new force, Rouhani said, “We have to be fatherly toward the people. Every morning someone wakes up and there is a new regulation, a new framework. One person wants to control the people secretly. Another person wants to control people openly. Do we have the right? The freedom of the people cannot be limited unless through the law. Nothing else can control the freedom of the people. The administration cannot do it. The judiciary cannot do it. Only the law. Without the law we do not have the right to interfere in the private or public lives of people. The prophet said that the ruler must be the father of the nation.”
Many Iranians have shared the one-minute video clip of Rouhani’s comments on social media.