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When Duty Calls, Do Iranian Police Enforce Islam?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has taken issue with President Hassan Rohani's comments on the duties of police.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has taken issue with President Hassan Rohani's comments on the duties of police.

Is the role of Iranian police to serve and protect the people, or the revolution?

That's up for interpretation in the Islamic republic, where the country's president and supreme leader have recently voiced different opinions on the police's role in enforcing Islamic values.

President Hassan Rohani sparked the debate when he addressed police commanders in Tehran on April 25.

"Police do not have a duty to enforce Islam," he was quoted as saying by Iranian media. "Police have a single task, which is to enforce the law."

That judgement, however, was not shared by the country's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In a speech posted on his website just a day after Rohani's comments, the supreme leader advised police that "your job is to serve society, the Islamic republic, and Islam's victory."

Limits Of The Law

The diverging viewpoints are the latest example of Rohani and Khamenei playing good cop/bad cop on issues that pit hard-line conservatives and more moderate elements of the Iranian establishment.

In this case, Rohani allows more room for the people to police themselves when it comes to practicing their faith.

"Police can take action when, first, there is legislation," he said. "Secondly, when the law has been communicated clearly and transparently."

Otherwise, he asked, where does it end?

Law enforcement -- such as morality police who ensure that women “properly” cover their hair and bodies -- are already involved in the enforcement of Islamic values. But Rohani argues that the long arm of the law has limits.

"For example," he said, "can the police enter a bank at noon and tell the bank manager: 'It's time for prayers?'"

Hard-Line Response

It didn't take long for Iranian hard-liners to weigh in on the debate -- predictably coming in on the side of the supreme leader.

Khamenei's comments were front-page news for Kayhan, which suggested that Rohani's view was in violation of Islamic teachings.​

The ultra-hard-line daily argued that committing a “haram” act in private or public is considered a crime and, therefore, preventing that crime falls under the duties of law enforcement.

"Expressing these comments is wrong because our laws are nothing but Islam," said Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi. The prominent cleric said it was the duty of all citizens, police forces or otherwise, to implement Islamic laws.

He suggested that comments to the contrary could give a "green light" to the morally corrupt because it would signal to them that they can do whatever they want and the police will not interfere.

Another cleric, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, said he was "very worried" by Rohani's comments.

"Many young people were martyred, maimed, and taken captive, and their aim was to revive Islamic values and implement holy Islamic laws,” Golpayegani said of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani, meanwhile, blasted Rohani's remarks and noted that the constitution of the Islamic republic was based on Islamic criteria.

The dispute over the duties of the police comes less than a year after a similar dispute over the path to heaven and the state’s role in leading to it.

Last year, Rohani came under fire from hard-liners for suggesting that it wasn't the duty of the state to guide people to heaven by interfering in their lives.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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