March 13 marks an important Iranian holiday, albeit one that the country’s theocratic regime has consistently tried to prevent the people from celebrating. The fire festival of Chaharshanbe Suri takes place on the last Tuesday before each Iranian New Year, and its celebration dates back to ancient, pre-Islamic traditions. On that day, revelers jump over small fires as a symbol of purification in preparation for Nowruz, which literally translates as “new day.”
As anticipation builds for this year’s celebration, some Iranians are hoping to see political changes that go far beyond the simple transition from one calendar year to the next. This is certainly true of activists who are preparing for a new round of anti-government protests.
For several weeks in late December and January, unrelenting protests spread across Iran giving rise to bold chants of “death to the dictator” and other slogans that can only be interpreted as direct calls for regime change. The demonstrations were predictably suppressed by Iranian security forces and more than 50 protesters were slaughtered. Approximately 8,000 others were arrested, and reports continue to trickle out of Iran detailing the killings resulting from continued crackdowns.
According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an inclusive and pluralistic parliament-in-exile made up of more than 500 opposition groups, at least 14 activists have been tortured to death since early January. The most recent casualty took place just last week. But domestic awareness of these killings is only fueling the people’s outrage and this underscores the conclusion of seasoned foreign observers and Middle East experts: the Iran rebellion is likely to resume and to present an even greater threat to the clerical regime in Tehran.
The leading opposition movement in the NCRI, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) – sometimes called the Mujahedin-E Khalq (MEK) – is understandably looking to Chaharshanbe Suri as the nucleus around which another round of protests may coalesce. For one thing, the festival has a long history of bringing massive numbers of Iranians into the streets in defiance of the regime’s efforts at crowd control. These efforts have grown more intense in the run up to this year’s celebration, as evidenced by Tehran’s plans to deploy civilian militias in every major municipality, under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
But it is not at all clear that these repressive precautions will be sufficient to overcome the enormous discontent that has only grown in the wake of nationwide protests. The geographic breadth of the uprising in Iran made it difficult to suppress. In fact, Tehran was able to do so only by relying on the sort of violence and indiscriminate targeting of activist communities that is certain to inflame the people’s hatred and embolden their conviction.
Chaharshanbe Suri will boast similar geographic breadth. If the PMOI’s organizing succeeds in bringing larger numbers of people into the streets to make their voices heard, it may be all but impossible for Iran’s thinly stretched suppressive forces to silence the demands quickly or easily.
There is no better time than the fire festival for a confrontation between the regime and its people. The occasion would signify Iran’s desire to rid itself of the mullahs’ control and highlight the culture clash that makes the regime incapable of representing Iranian society. For nearly 40 years, the religious dictatorship has tried to rid the country of free cultural expression, while the people have stubbornly fought back. Pre-Islamic rituals pose a threat to the government’s efforts to enforce an Iranian identity that is synonymous with fundamentalism. But the Iranian people simply do not see themselves this way – 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 tend to result in clashes between the public and the regime’s security forces, as do simple expressions of the freedoms that are taken for granted in modern, secular democracies.
Nevertheless, Iranians assembled in great numbers earlier 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, or the absolute rule of religious clerics. 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.
The Iranian people are willing to walk through fire to achieve freedom and democracy. So what better time could there be to continue the rebellion begun in December than during a nationwide celebration in which millions of Iranians will literally be walking through fire in a ritual of purification?
As the PMOI continues to issue calls to action in the run-up to Chaharshanbe Suri, the international community can demonstrate their support for the Iranian people by acknowledging their courage and conviction in challenging their authoritarian rulers. And though the fire festival will be celebrated by Iranians on their own, the world can uphold the aspirations of the Iranian people by keeping the lines used by Iranian activists to communicate openly and sharing their message widely.
World leaders can further magnify the opposition’s message that the Iranian people should be free to build a society that reflects their true national image and not the identity that the theocrats in Tehran have imposed on them.