New year festival fires up Iranian opposition

Prosecutor general warns opposition supporters planning to turn the celebration into an anti-government protest rally that they will be confronted by security forces.

Tehran // The prosecutor general of Tehran has warned opposition supporters planning to turn the celebration of an ancient fire festival before the Iranian New Year this month into an anti-government protest rally that they will be confronted by security forces for threatening national security.

"Nobody is against people's happiness and merrymaking but those who intend to disrupt public order, harm people and unleash hatred will be strongly dealt with," Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi was quoted as saying by the website of the state-run broadcaster IRIB. "Considering the massive turnout of people for condemnation of [opposition protests on] Ashura and the anniversary of the Revolution, people are not going to allow rioters to take advantage [of the occasion to protest]," he said.

Mr Dolatabadi also warned families to keep an eye on their children to prevent "a happy occasion from turning into pain and suffering". The festival of Charshanbe Soori (Red Wednesday), marked by lighting bonfires, has been celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian calendar year for thousands of years. This year the festival will fall on March 16. Celebration of Charshanbe Soori is largely frowned upon by the religious establishment for its connections with ancient, pre-Islamic rites of fire.

Despite the absence of an official ban, authorities have many times since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 cracked down on young people who celebrate it boisterously with firecrackers, small fireworks and by lighting huge bonfires in the streets. Some Iranians say the campaign against Charshanbe Soori has transformed the peaceful holiday into a sometimes violent confrontation between youths and the authorities over the past three decades.

"People used to light small bonfires and jump over them, and the youth went around for trick or treat and set off small firecrackers. "It is very sad that the youth now go for dangerously strong home-made firecrackers that sound nearly like bombs and sometimes become too rowdy, to show their discontent with the crackdowns. This year there is even more reason for venting of anger and confrontation between the youth and the police," said Jaleh Nasiri, a mother of two.

The call for using the Charshanbe Soori festival to protest against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by some supporters of the green movement is being hotly debated on opposition websites and blogs. Some opposition supporters claim the festival is a good opportunity for the green movement to take to the streets under the cover of celebrations of Charshanbe Soori and show off their strength. Supporters of the idea have posted video clips on YouTube that invite people to protest on Charshanbe Soori and on their blogs teach ways to make fires burn with a green flame.

Others, however, argue that, given the holiday's history of confrontation between security forces and revellers, the regime could take advantage of any violence that occurs by blaming it on the opposition. "They can kill, loot and burn. They can break the windows of banks and shops and blame it on the Greens - This is walking right into their trap," an unnamed blogger wrote. Those who support protesting during the festival are urging those involved to take measures to demonstrate the peacefulness of the green movement.

"Let's find innovative ways to use the potentials of the festival and avoid violence - Let's promote a non-violent Charshanbe Soori - to expose the identity of the real violence seekers," the opposition website Jaras advised. The opposition's last attempt at hijacking an official rally and turning it into a demonstration against the government of President Ahmadinejad failed on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11.

The opposition claims that the government had bused people to Tehran from other cities and towns to stage an artificial show of strength and to suppress the green movement's attempt to hijack the occasion. "The maximum number of buses and even trains had been employed to gather crowds as well as armed and disciplinary forces for the [pro-government] demonstration," the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who described the demonstration as "engineered", said in an interview published by his official website Kalemeh last week.

"The day of the festival is a day of celebration of [the victory of] Light over Darkness," Mr Mousavi said of the festival while warning against any form of violent behaviour. If supporters of the green movement urge each other to stay away from violent behaviour, the political damage that people pretending to be opposition supporters may intend to cause can be prevented, Mr Mousavi said.