x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Hardliners feel the heat as Iran marks ancient fire festival

Security forces flood the streets to prevent any outbreak of protests as people defy Khamenei's call to shun the Chaharshanbeh Souri celebrations.

Tehran echoed to the boom of firecrackers and joyous revelry into the early hours yesterday as Iranians celebrated an ancient Zoroastrian fire festival that is a prelude to Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Police and Basij militiamen were out in large numbers in case opposition supporters dared - despite official warnings - to use the occasion, known as Chaharshanbeh Souri, to stage anti-government protests. There were unconfirmed reports of isolated skirmishes between youths and security forces, and unverified video footage percolated through the internet of youths in some locations chanting "death to the dictator."

The celebrations, however, appeared to have passed without a major incident. "The mood was festive rather than political," said one Tehran resident. It was an unseasonably balmy night of cheerful pandemonium. Deafening firecrackers set car alarms blaring and enveloped the teeming Iranian capital in a pall of sulphurous smoke. Underground Persian pop music competed with the clatter of police helicopters.

In secluded gardens and side-street alleyways, men, women and children leapt over bonfires. The act of purification symbolises a hope for happiness in the new year and an end to the suffering of the year gone by. The ancient pagan ritual is held on the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year and heralds the advent of spring. But even celebrations in Iran, as several analysts commented, can be a political statement.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sunday urged people to shun the festival, declaring that it has "no basis in Sharia and creates a lot of harm and corruption". His dour pronouncement seemingly had less to do with the festival's un-Islamic origins than his concern that it would give the opposition the chance to prove it was alive and kicking. The opposition's main leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, already had urged his supporters not to use the festival as an excuse to mount anti-government rallies, and not to provoke hardliners.

He instead declared that the Persian New Year of 1389 - which starts on March 21 - would be one of "perseverance and patience" for the opposition green movement. His message, effectively, was that his supporters should temper any expectations of swift results and pace themselves for a marathon, not a sprint. His statement, released on Monday, was made in a private weekend meeting with leading members of the Islamic Participation Party, Iran's main reformist political organisation, which the government banned this week.

In a clear attempt to boost morale, Mr Mousavi suggested history was on the opposition's side. "My feeling for the future is that this movement is irreversible. We will never go back to the position we were in a year ago." He urged his followers to counter regime propaganda that the green movement is supported only by the monied and educated elite and does not embrace the pious. "We have to reach out to major groups in society, like teachers, workers and various classes of people to explain to them the message of the movement," he said. "We have to strengthen our bonds with the grand ayatollahs and the clergy."

Street protests were entirely legitimate, Mr Mousavi insisted, but ordinary people had suffered "extreme violence" by government forces. This, together with his call on supporters not to protest during the fire festival, was further evidence that the green movement is abandoning its earlier strategy of gatecrashing emotive dates in Iran's calendar to protest against the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last June.

That strategy had notable successes last year. But the regime belatedly learnt to counter it in time to snuff out with relative ease planned mass protests on last month's anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Taking draconian pre-emptive action, the authorities arrested scores of student and other activists, who would have organised the protests at a grass-roots level, and disrupted mobile phone, internet and text messaging services.

On the day itself, security forces flooded the streets. Iranian opposition figures were said to be upset that analysts abroad had previewed the event as a climactic showdown that could tilt the stalemated balance of power in favour of the regime's opponents. "People on the inside were left feeling the consequences of falsely raised expectations," said a senior Iranian commentator in Washington. Mr Mousavi knows that no matter how resolved and resilient his supporters, they cannot be expected to keep taking to the streets, risking broken bones and jail terms, without seeing concrete political results.

The regime's overkill security measures for the fire festival, however, served mainly to betray its insecurity. One witness estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 police and militiamen were deployed in Tehran alone. "They're out every year but their presence was particularly marked on Tuesday night." A garage owner in east Tehran mused: "I don't know what they're scared of." As one of his mechanics jumped over a bonfire on his forecourt, he added: "This is what we've been doing since childhood."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae