At this time of year, Grand Plaza is buzzing with people buying gifts for their loved ones. Shop windows are filled with delicious chocolates, doting cards and thousands of red roses. Cars pass with oversized teddy bears strapped to their rooftops as hordes of people grip helium-filled, heart-shaped balloons. This demonstrative embrace of Valentine’s Day might appear to be in a metropolis like New York City or Tokyo, but it is actually in Tehran. And for an instant one may believe that love is truly in the air.
But on second glance one will notice the berating posters that litter the walls: large banners demanding that shopkeepers “refrain from storing, offering, buying and selling goods related to Valentine’s Day. Otherwise, any consequences will be on the individual shop.” Uniformed police and stern-faced bearded men affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard known as the “lebas shakhsis,” or plainclothes officers, can be spotted patrolling the streets, causing ordinary citizens to walk away in the opposite direction and shop owners to hide forbidden merchandise.
The Islamic Republic has officially banned Valentine’s Day since 2010, considering it a decadent celebration of love that promotes “degenerate” Western culture and illegitimate relationships.
Valentine’s Day happens to coincide with another celebration: the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Forty-three years on, the first 10 days of February mark the victory of the revolution and the coming to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the eyes of hardline Islamists, the revolution is “not complete” until an “ideal Islamic society” has been created. In practice, this means a sustained effort to eradicate from Iranian society all things deemed “non-Islamic,” like Western influences. So the fact that a Western and hyper-commercialized event like Valentine’s Day remains celebrated in Iran is the biggest indicator that the values-based Islamic Revolution has failed.
Indeed, Iranians mark the day with a high demand for gifts, which is risky business in the Islamic Republic as the clerical regime has for over two decades officially prohibited the production of posters, brochures, boxes and cards with love heart symbols and red roses — indeed anything that promotes love and romance on Valentine’s Day is contraband. Yet shop owners across Iran continue to jeopardize their livelihood by violating the prohibition on love-themed gifts and offering such merchandise to customers. But in Iran, doing anything for love comes with grave consequences.
In the religious city of Qom, the Center for Reduction and Control of Social Harms has warned businesses that “promoting anti-cultural symbols such as Valentine’s Day will result in one to six months’ closure” and has provided a hotline phone number for the public to call and report any transgressions.
In response to Valentine’s Day themed activities, the head of the public security police in Kerman province has also declared that “any mixed-gender or unauthorized tours are prohibited, and offenders will be legally dealt with.”
The crackdown on Valentine’s Day in Iran has grown more extreme in recent years. In Qom, the authorities shuttered 32 shopping units for promoting anti-cultural symbols; many merchants lost their income. In Kerman, the police warned that shops selling flowers, clothing, confectionery and cards were “under the scrutiny” of state surveillance forces. This clampdown has even led to a nationwide blanket ban on the sale of red or heart-shaped balloons in the days leading up to Feb. 14.
Attempts have even been made to co-opt the celebration of love and Islamicize it. The regime has tried to replace Valentine’s Day with the wedding day of Imam Ali, the first divinely ordained Shiite Imam, and Fatimah, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. But this attempt has not caught on.
And in the Islamic Republic’s ongoing attempt to control family and romance, it has been promoting a state-sanctioned dating app called Hamdam, which means companion in Farsi. Created in July 2021 by a regime entity called — without irony — the “Islamic Propaganda Organization,” Hamdam seeks to emulate dating apps like Tinder but with an ideological twist. Indeed, as the app creators have clarified, Hamdam is not about promoting love but rather about tightening the grip of the regime around the most basic human impulse: to find a mate and fall in love.
In that regard, Hamdam imposes parental controls and quizzes candidates with psychological questions, not in an attempt to find them the perfect match but to digitize arranged marriages as seen fit by the state. The app is in part a regime response to the country’s falling marriage and birth rates with an eye on instilling traditional gender roles among adolescent Iranians, though Iranian youth appear to have swiped left on the whole idea.
Shockingly, last month the health ministry banned the sale of over-the-counter contraception, which now requires a prescription from a medical provider. The move appears to be yet another desperate attempt to regulate human relations — the regime crawling further into the people’s bedrooms and policing them there — perhaps in the hopes of triggering the baby boom that the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei desires.
Yet despite these hurdles, Valentine’s Day remains hugely celebrated in Iran, perhaps even more so than in the West. The Islamic Republic’s inability to push back against Western influences is particularly evident when parts of Iran’s religious constituency themselves celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Indeed, every Feb. 14 Iranians seem to catch a bad case of the love bug, and the hardline Islamists blame the internet for the contagion. But state-imposed censorship cannot disconnect the people of Iran from the world. This colossal failure has left the aging ayatollahs in a state of perpetual flirtation with the idea of an intranet, though without the support of a major technological power, such aspirations may be out of the ayatollahs’ league.
Paradoxically, as the Islamic Revolution turns 43, Iranian society has perhaps become more secular than ever before. There is no ignoring the huge cracks in the regime’s attempts to Islamicize everything in Iran, including love. Indeed, Iranians’ simple act of wearing red and floating balloons on Valentine’s Day is, in and of itself, an act of passive defiance against the Islamic Republic and everything the revolution stands for.
With more and more Iranians celebrating Cupid’s day of love, Khamenei — the 82-year-old ayatollah who has ruled over Iran for over 30 years — is likely to feel even more alone on Feb. 14. And this could not be a better metaphor for the growing domestic isolation of the clerical regime and its ideology.