General Reza Zarei, Tehran's chief of police, has been under arrest in Iran since mid-March for a curious scandal: He was caught in a brothel with six prostitutes. One of the women involved says Zarei, 52, asked the group to remove their clothes, "stand in a row in front of him and pray naked."
The trouble for Zarei -- and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who hired him -- is not just that he's chief of police in the Iranian capital. He's also in charge of vice crime. He should have been arresting the prostitutes, not paying them for kinky prayers.
The one-time chief of police in the northern province of Gilan was raised to one of the nation's top law-enforcement posts three years ago, reportedly with Ahmadinejad's patronage. His harsh moral sermons on state TV have made him famous. Fashionable young women who let their headscarves slip down around their necks were subject to his strict enforcement of Iran's dress code, and his office gave out an estimated 35,000 warnings -- to unmarried couples, for example, who held hands.
Prostitutes? What Prostitutes?
Until recently, conservative Iranians even denied there was prostitution in Iran. The government also denied at first that Zarei had been arrested. But reports about the scandal began to appear on Persian-language Web sites and local newspapers until Iran's Justice Department confirmed Zarei's arrest in mid-April.
Now it appears that the arrest was personally ordered by Iran's justice minister, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi, whose office had been monitoring Zarei for weeks. Even the feared chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi -- a close friend of Zarei's -- wasn't told. Zarei's numerous supporters tried to hush up the case, and even after the government confirmed the scandal, it was played down as "minimal" and of "a purely private nature."
But in the meantime the prosecutor in charge of the case, Mohassan Ghasi, has raised even more suspicion: With his remark that a "high police official" could exploit his position for "material" as well as "private" gain, the prosecutor hinted that Zarei may also be suspected of pimping. Iranian police as well as the nation's Revolutionary Guard have, in fact, long stood under suspicion of taking kickbacks from Iran's various red-light districts.
Prostitution in Iran -- an Islamic theocracy -- is against the law. Harsh punishments for prostitutes as well as their customers include not just jail but execution. The business flourishes anyway. Thousands of women reportedly work in the 12 million-strong capital of Tehran. On Motahari Street, in the wealthy northern part of the city, the price for an hour of sex ranges from €20 to €50 ($31 to $78).
Last Wednesday it was reported that Zarei committed suicide in jail, raising speculation that an inconvenient Tehran insider had been liquidated. Tehran, though, says Zarei is still alive.