Iranian protesters were seeking to build pressure with three days of nationwide strikes starting Monday, posing more upheaval in the country gripped by unrest even as one senior official suggested that the Islamic Republic's morality police had been abolished.
With uncertainty over the status of the feared body whose conduct helped trigger the months of protests, many activists on social media dismissed suggestions of a government climbdown and said there should be no let-up against the state. The Biden administration also expressed skepticism.
Social media was flooded with people — including prominent members of the Iranian diaspora — calling for a general strike across the country and storefronts were shuttered in several cities across Iran, Reuters reported.
One video that was shared widely showed a person spray painting “14, 15, 16” on a billboard in Tehran’s Mirdamad Boulevard — this week's strike dates in Iran's Solar Hijri calendar.
In the video, which has been geolocated by NBC News, the person also writes "Mahsa Amini/ for freedom." Amini was the young woman whose death sparked the nationwide protests in September. She died in hospital three days after being arrested by the country's morality police for allegedly breaking its strict dress-code laws.
The demonstrations against her death have morphed into a wider movement, parts of which are demanding outright revolution, the strongest challenge to the theocratic regime since it came to power in 1979.
At least 470 people have been killed and some 18,000 detained in the subsequent crackdown by security forces, according to a tweet Sunday by Human Rights Activists in Iran, a United States-based rights group. Other human rights groups estimate similar, although Iran's interior ministry said Saturday that the death toll was 200, including security forces who had been killed.
On Sunday, Iran’s chief prosecutor, Mohamed Jafar Montazeri, appeared to cede ground.
He said that the morality police had been "abolished" and that officials were reviewing the country's mandatory hijab laws (which many young Iranians have long since ditched anyway.)
His unscripted comments were reported by the semi-official news agencies ISNA and ILNA, as well as by several other media outlets. However, Iran's main state media agencies haven’t covered the remarks, potentially signaling they were not sanctioned by the political establishment.
They have also not been repeated by Iran's president or supreme leader. And it's not clear whether what Montazeri said has actually happened. The morality police have not been prominent on the streets of Tehran and other cities for roughly two months.
When asked about Montazeri’s statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, gave no direct answer. "Be sure that in Iran, within the framework of democracy and freedom, which very clearly exists in Iran, everything is going very well," Amirabdollahian said, speaking during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia, according to The Associated Press.
Some experts and activists have treated the suggestion that the morality police had been shut down with suspicion.
Nazanin Boniadi, a Tehran-born British actor and human rights advocate, tweeted that it was likely not an official announcement but merely "a trial balloon floated by an official," showing regime leaders "clearly understand they are in dire straits."
The United States was similarly skeptical that Iran is loosening its hijab laws, according to a senior Biden administration official. They said that it was possible the announcement was made to diminish attendance participation in the three days of strikes this week.
A State Department spokesperson called the reports of reforms "ambiguous" and "vague" and said that the U.S. had not seen any sign that "Iran's leadership is improving its treatment of women and girls or ceasing the violence it inflicts on peaceful protesters."