Zvi Bar'el / Ahmadinejad vs. Iran's Morality Police

The Iranian president has spurned his base in a bid to placate the reformists, but critics ask why he is even worried about the 'lost' movement.

A caricature from 2009 on the Iranian website Roozonline, which is run by reformist Iranian intellectuals, portrays U.S. President Barack Obama, with his hand covering his eyes, stretching out his hand to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Beneath the feet of the Iranian president are bloodied and squashed green figures who symbolize the victims of Mir Hossain Mousavi's green movement.

Tehran woman Khamenei

Obama, write Iranian intellectuals, has disappointed the green movement, human rights activists in Iran and the victims of the demonstrations. Mehdi Karroubi, an Islamic cleric, a member of the green movement and one of the candidates in the last elections, told the Al Arabiya television network he didn't support building ties or open hostility toward the United States.

"We believe that the United States is searching for a new basis for control of the Persian Gulf, therefore we must act to prevent our becoming a new American colony. As far as Obama is concerned, although he made positive declarations at the start of his term, a change in U.S. policy is not under the control of American leaders or the will of its public."

He says that it is Israel that dictates American policy.

Obama is too convenient a target. He may speak too little about human rights in Iran, but a large percentage of the reformists in Iran do not really want direct American intervention to promote their agenda, for fear that they will be accused of treason and of "selling out Iran" to its enemies, voiding any public legitimacy.

Their real problem is apparently that Mousavi's green movement has been suffering lately from a lack of leadership and agenda, especially when there is now no serious excuse for embarking on demonstrations.

Mousavi, who two weeks ago decided to post on his website the principles of the covenant around which he aspires to unify all the opposition forces, is well aware of this criticism. This is a covenant that speaks of full freedom of expression, advancing the status of women, a wise economic policy and even a call to reexamine the degree of influence of Islamic clerics on the nature of the regime.

But he is also still careful about calling for a complete change in government, which mandates that the supreme religious leader is also the supreme political leader.

The criticism within the reformist camp and the weakness of its leadership is being exploited well by Ahmadinejad, who is assisted by the imposition of sanctions against Iran as a political lever for national mobilization and for slandering anyone who tries to criticize his foreign policy. Ahmadinejad is also entering the reformists' home turf, as when he declared in a television interview that "We consider it an insult when a man and a woman are walking in the street and are asked about their relationship. Nobody has a right to do that."

Ahmadinejad was referring to the activities of the Iranian morality police, which recently intensified its supervision in the street as part of a stepped-up morality campaign, which was initiated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad's criticisms of these steps are not self evident. In post-election Iran, and especially in recent weeks, there has been a tough campaign for "maintaining morality." This campaign began with increasing the fines for women who wear a "bad hijab," in other words a headscarf whose colors do not accord with morality as defined by the morality police, or exposes too much hair. Women are now being required to pay a fine of about $1,000 as compared to $50 until now.

An Iranian female journalist also reported that women who are too dark were arrested and interrogated about getting tans. When they claimed it was their natural skin color they were forced to remove their clothing and to prove it was not a tan. Young couples are stopped in the street in order to check whether they are married or engaged, in other words, that they are legally permitted to be seen together in public, and Khamenei is also initiating the formation of a new body whose role is to examine new strategies for enforcing morality in the country.

Ahmadinejad's declarations are seen as slamming the methods of operation of the morality police, especially when he emphasizes that "these acts are not by government initiative."

The president was the target of scathing attacks on that score from several important clerics, such as Ahmed Khatami, one of Ahmadinejad's supporters, who accused him of making light of concerns for morality.

"This wave of maintaining morality is supported by important clerics, members of parliament and every believer. All those who demonstrated in favor of the hijab are the same people who supported Ahmadinejad. We expect him at least to share this concern with them," declared Khatami.

The public debate underscores the political savvy of Ahmadinejad, who realizes very well where he can score points among the younger population. Ostensibly, a president in his second term, with another three years to go, does not have to be concerned about public criticism. But Ahmadinejad has adopted a clear strategy since the elections, whose main thrust is "You, the public and particularly the reformists, let us run the affairs of state and we won't bother you with questions of morality."

The government will conduct its foreign policy in its own way, while the public will be able to enjoy relative freedom. This strategy is not acceptable to Khamenei, who does not see any need at this time to placate the stagnating reformists.

If there is anything that can continue to fuel the opposition, it is not nuclear policy or the question of sanctions against Iran, but the dispute regarding lifestyles in Iran. On this issue Ahmadinejad seems to be demonstrating greater political savvy than his conservative critics.