Iran's mullahs getting even more nervous about Iran's fire festival

March 13 marks Chaharshanbe Suri, or the annual fire festival in Iran.  Traditionally, it takes place on the last Tuesday before each Iranian New Year, known as Nowrouz, which begins at the advent of spring.  This year, spring falls on March 20.  Nowruz translates as "new day," and with the trend of events this year, some Iranians are hopeful that the new year will herald social changes that go far beyond the simple transition from one calendar year to the next.  That is with reason.

In late December and January, protests took place across the nation, with people chanting against both factions of the regime and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in what can be interpreted only as calls for regime change.  "Death to Khamenei" isn't subtle.  The regime replied with brute force, killing at least 50 protesters in the streets.  The regime's officials claimed that 5,000 were arrested, but according to the opposition, 8,000 protesters were arrested, and reports continue to trickle out of Iran about killings that are part of the ongoing crackdown.

According to the main Iranian opposition movement, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, at least 14 activists have been tortured to death since early January, with the most recent such incident occurring just last week.  Domestic awareness of these killings is fueling more outrage.  Despite Tehran's heavy-handed approach, there are strong signs that the protests and the uprising are likely to resume and will present an even greater threat to the clerical regime.

There were protests by thousands of farmers in the central city of Isfahan last week who clashed with security forces who tried to suppress them.  There are constant reports of labor strikes and unrest.

The PMOI is specifically looking to Chaharshanbe Suri as a nucleus around which such an uprising might coalesce.  Its network has called for a mobilization for Charshanbeh Suri and has been diligently working to that end.  It has good reason.  The festival has a long history of bringing a massive number of Iranians out into the street in defiance of the regime's efforts to control crowds.  Those efforts have grown more intense in the run-up to this year's celebration, as the information provided by the PMOI's domestic network shows.  PMOI uncovered Tehran's plans to deploy civilian militias, called Bassij, in every major municipality, under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But the geographic breadth of these protests, which involve more than 140 cities and towns throughout the country, makes it notoriously difficult for the regime to efficiently suppress the movement now.  In fact, it has been able to do so only by relying on the sort of violence and indiscriminate targeting of activist communities that is sure to inflame the people's hatred and conviction.

It is a foregone conclusion that this Chaharshanbe Suri will boast similar geographic breadth as the previous protests this year.  If, in addition to that, the PMOI's organizing succeeds in bringing larger numbers of people into the streets with political demands, it may be all but impossible for Iran's thinly stretched suppressive forces to silence those demands.

There may be no better time than the fire festival for this confrontation between the regime and its people.  Not only does it signify Iran potentially cleansing itself of the mullahs' regime, but it also highlights the culture clash that makes that regime completely incapable of representing Iranian society.  For nearly 40 years, the religious dictatorship has been trying to rid the country of free cultural expression, which includes the ancient fire festival, while the people have stubbornly fought back.  The people simply do not see themselves in the culturally repressed mold of the mullahs – especially not the nation's educated youth, its persecuted minorities, or its institutionally marginalized women.

Chaharshanbe Suri does not stand alone in demonstrating the people's embrace of things that are rejected by the fundamentalists.  Annual celebrations of the pre-Islamic leader Cyrus the Great also have resulted in clashes between the public and the security forces, along with simple expressions of the freedoms that are taken for granted in modern secular democracies.  Each year, thousands of young Iranians are arrested and punished by flogging for their participation in mixed-gender parties.  In the past two months, more than 30 women have been arrested for publicly removing their headscarves in protest of the country's forced veiling laws.  A number of women braved out and held a protest, calling for justice and equality, on March 8, just a few days ago.  While the regime tried to suppress that immediately, the mere fact that the protest took place is a sign of shifting momentum in Iran.  And in Iranian courts, people can be sentenced to death for crimes such as "insulting the supreme leader."

Nevertheless, Iranians assembled in great numbers early this year to collectively insult the supreme leader and to call for his resignation, and ultimately for the establishment of democracy in place of veleyat-e faqih, the absolute rule of religious clerics.  It seems that after decades of repression, Iranians are more and more willing to risk arrest, torture, and even death to express their desire for a government that represents their interests, their material needs, and their national culture.

As the PMOI continues to issue its calls to action in the run-up to Chaharshanbe Suri, the international community owes it support.  Although the occasion is for the Iranian people on their own, the world can help to keep open the lines of communication among Iranian activists.  It can also reinforce the message that the Iranian people should feel free to build a society that reflects their true national image and not the identity that the mullahs would impose upon them.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a human rights advocate, specializing in political and economic issues relating to Iran and the Middle East.

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