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The latest on Iran's protests, morality police and a silent majority

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is the state of protests in Iran nearly three months after the death of a 22-year-old woman who was in the custody of the country's so-called morality police? And how much weight should we give to reports over the weekend that the morality police have maybe been suspended? Azadeh Moaveni is tracking events inside Iran closely from her base in New York. She teaches journalism at New York University and has covered the Middle East for two decades. Welcome.

AZADEH MOAVENI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: All right. Let's start with what we know, which is, according to Iranian state media, Iran's top prosecutor said the morality police have been abolished. But to be clear, other government officials have not confirmed this. Is that correct?

MOAVENI: That's exactly right. The statement used an ambiguous term about the morality police. It suggested that it may be suspended or abolished. The term in Persian, as I said, is a bit ambiguous.

KELLY: OK.

MOAVENI: And subsequent sort of comments by different state bodies appear to have walked it back somewhat. So I think it's quite premature to see this as a formal, lasting sort of legislative act that would truly dissolve the morality police.

KELLY: So you're saying there's been some walking back. For Americans not familiar with the morality police, what they do, their role in Iranian society, what would the significance of a move like that be?

MOAVENI: It would be significant. I mean, the morality police are a branch of the municipal police. They roam the streets in white vans and apprehend women who they believe are not following the country's dress codes properly. They may apprehend young men who seem to be wearing overly Westernized hairstyles or man buns or things that don't conform with proper sort of Islamic comportment. Really, it's a mechanism of social control. But also, this kind of attitude towards policing exists in different security bodies as well. So to actually really dissolve morality policing as a command within the Iranian security forces, there would need to be a much more formal, much more higher up sort of announcement within Iran to really understand this is over.

KELLY: You spent two weeks in Iran earlier this fall back when the protests were beginning.

MOAVENI: I did. It was - I mean, just the sheer palpable nature of having the majority of communities, neighborhoods, society on the sides of the protesters. You know, that silent majority's support matters. And you could - you know, I could see it. You could sort of see it in elderly women going about their fruit shopping without their headscarves. You could see it in - you know, in different shops, you know, being willing to open their doors to protesters who needed to escape. I mean, to sort of see women en masse flouting these hijab rules - they're going to universities, government offices where you would never see women challenging these rules. It was just extraordinary. So I think this is a very different round of protests. And the government knows it's up against something sort of far deeper and far more profound than anything it's faced before.

KELLY: So understanding that you're speaking now from outside Iran and trying, as are we all, to piece together what's going on inside the country, do you know how what you saw in September compares to the state of protests now? Are they still going strong? Are they ebbing somewhat? Do we know?

MOAVENI: We see that they are ebbing and flowing to an extent. I mean, there are weeks that are more quiet, but they are really persistent because really, the government's response has been one of indifference. So although there may be quiet weeks, you know, there will be expanding strikes, as we've been seeing calls for this week. You know, at some point, that silent majority that I mentioned may be dragged into the streets.

KELLY: Well, let me turn you to this other potentially key development, a three-day strike now underway, I am reading, across Iran. Who's striking? What are they striking for?

MOAVENI: Well, the reports of strikes that we've seen so far are within truck drivers, different shopkeepers. I think we have to be quite cautious about whether we see this as widespread general strike.

KELLY: Is there potential for a strike, if it were to gain traction, to put pressure on the regime in a way that street protests have not been able to, at least not yet?

MOAVENI: Absolutely. Bigger strikes across industries that are central and potentially strategic - I mean, that would take this to really a revolutionary level. We're absolutely - we're not there yet. And I think it's partly because the protesters out on the street - they haven't been able to yet articulate a positive vision of how and what they're seeking that would help all of the people watching and empathizing and supportive from the sidelines to give them a positive vision to come join in. So I think once - you know, if and when they're able to bridge that, then there's a potential for that kind of mobilization that we haven't seen yet.

KELLY: Azadeh Moaveni is an associate professor of journalism at New York University. Thank you so much.

MOAVENI: It's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.