The move comes amid growing tensions between Rouhani and conservative hardliners, who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the president’s stance on the nuclear talks and his attempts to promote more freedom of expression in the Islamic Republic. The growing conservative backlash recently claimed the scalp of Rouhani’s Minister of Higher Education, Reza Farraji-Dana, who was impeached by conservatives in parliament in August after attempting to reinstate students expelled from university for political activism.
The group behind the move is Ansar e-Hezbollah. The group’s leader had earlier written an article claiming that “tolerance has promoted corruption in society and spread problems in the country. This must be demolished.”
Ansar e-Hezbollah is a radical Shi’ite movement that serves the most ideologically extreme segments of the clerical establishment by exerting pressure—and at times even resorting to physical violence—against liberals and perceived domestic enemies of the Islamic Republic.
Ansar e-Hezbollah became notorious during the 1990s when its members were accused of attacking cinemas and burning bookstores distributing films and books that had been approved by government censors but which the organization considered inappropriate. The group, which first appeared during the term of pragmatist president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, continued its activities under reformist Mohammad Khatami, but subsequently became largely dormant under arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Its re-emergence under Rouhani is a clear sign of the growing tensions between the radical faction and moderates.
Earlier this year, Ansar-e Hezbollah has announced that its members intend to carry out motorbike patrols in public places to “promote virtue and prevent vice,” including seeking to enforce Islamic dress code on Tehran’s female population.
Following a meeting earlier this week, the group reaffirmed its determination to launch the patrols.
“Iran: Radical group gears up to begin morality patrols”
Ansar e-Hezbollah Secretary-General Abdul-Hamid Mohtasham said: “Tehran will see an increasing number of missions to change the current balance in the country. We should tip the scale in favor of virtuous people [and] not the corrupt.”
Despite the tensions between Rouhani and his conservative opponents, Ansar e-Hezbollah’s pronouncements were criticized in Iran’s parliament, with some conservative legislators branding its plans “anarchy and interference in legal matters.”
In response to Ansar-e Hezbollah’s initial announcements, Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman Rouhollah Jomei said: “Any activities of this kind require a permit from the Interior Ministry, and [the Ministry] has not received any requests to issue a permit for Ansar-e Hezbollah’s activities.”
In response, the group released a statement saying they did not need any government approval to carry out their mission.
Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli had earlier confirmed that Ansar-e Hezbollah must obtain legal permits before they can carry out any patrols.
Iran’s Interior Ministry also warned about the establishment of morality councils at local mosques. “Such councils should be aware that their activities must correlate religious principles and that they will be held responsible for their activities,” an Interior Ministry statement said.
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