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More Power for Iran's Vigilantes

FILE - Veiled Iranian women take part in a mourning ceremony, as they cover their faces symbolically, in the city of Khorramabad, southwest of Tehran.

Iranian conservatives have taken the upper hand against moderate government officials in the battle over the meaning of “decency.”

In an overwhelming vote Wednesday, conservative lawmakers granted greater powers to volunteer groups to “promote virtue and prevent vice” on the street. Derided by critics as fundamentalist vigilantes, the groups chastise and in some cases, physically assault and arrest Iranians they consider improperly dressed.

Some of the volunteers are thought to be members of Ansar e-Hezbollah, a conservative Shi’ite movement aligned with some of Iran’s more hardline clerics.

Iran’s Government Objects

The law places the volunteers under the Basij, the paramilitary units controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, widely blamed for carrying out the violent crackdown on protests following Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election.

They are reviled by more progressive forces, including youth who do not adhere to their strict standards, in particular for women, of covering much of the body.

Iran’s interior ministry has objected to the bill on the grounds it is their province, not that of volunteers, to patrol the streets. Last month it warned volunteers their actions would be considered illegal and “dealt with.”

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also opposed, saying such actions against liberal youth simply don’t work.

Wider Split

The law is cast in terms of upholding public morality, but is seen by many as part of a wider struggle by conservative lawmakers and clerics unhappy with Rouhani’s dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program with the West as well as his government’s perceived push for greater freedom of expression.

Exiled Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi told VOA Persian that “over the past decade, radical parliamentarians have tried repeatedly to empower the vigilantes.”

And while Mehrabi sees the current law as part of a push to pressure the Rouhani administration, he added, “when seen as part of the right wing action plan, we can conclude it is more for propaganda purposes, aimed at appeasing their supporters.”

Yet the law may also empower a more zealous force criticized even by conservative lawmakers. Ansar e-Hezbollah has vowed to step up vigilante action on the streets.

Ansar e-Hezbollah officials released a statement that “tolerance has promoted corruption in society and spread problems in the country. This must be demolished.”