By Robin Pomeroy
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will host an international celebration of its new year next week despite critics who say it glorifies a pre-Islamic festival and will invoke memories of the last shah.
Opposition to the gathering for Nowruz, an ancient festival marking the start of the Iranian solar year and the coming of spring, shows the difficulties facing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he tries to boost Iran's standing in the region.
Heads of states from Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Armenia will attend the festivities next Sunday and Monday, the official news agency IRNA said. Qatar, Oman and Kyrgyzstan will also send high-level representatives.
Ahmadinejad's international affairs director said "Nowruz diplomacy" -- spreading the goodwill message of what is Iran's biggest holiday -- would become a new "diplomatic doctrine" aimed at improving ties with Iran's neighbors.
But conservatives have criticized the ceremony on religious grounds, saying the Islamic Republic should not glorify a holiday which has pagan origins -- a sensitive theme in Iran where Muslim festivals share the calendar with older, pre-Islamic feast days.
Opponents of Ahmadinejad, himself a hard-liner, have criticized his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, for promoting an "Iranian school of thought" which they see as a challenge to Iran's Islamic character.
Media reported that the ceremony was initially planned to be held in Shiraz, near the ancient Persian ruins of Persepolis - an idea that horrified clergy in the city. They said it was reminiscent of a lavish party staged there by the last Shah of Iran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire, which appalled many Iranians due to its excess.
A group of clerics from Shiraz wrote to Ahmadinejad to say such an event would recall "bitter memories" of the monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and would be "a kind of cultural regression from the original Islamic culture."
"Spending money on such festivities lacks legitimacy and from the political viewpoint, it is not acceptable in our country where Islam is the basis," parliamentarian Gholam- Reza Mesbahi-Moghaddam was quoted as saying by the semi-official Mehr news agency.
Reports that King Abdullah of Jordan had been invited also drew criticism from many politicians who see him as too close to Iran's biggest enemy, Washington. The king would not now be coming, media later reported.
In addition, some politicians have said the clashes between Shi'ite demonstrators and the Sunni government in Bahrain, and the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in quashing the protests, mean the time is wrong to host such a gathering of dignitaries from neighboring states.
Bahrain's crackdown on protesters from the Shi'ite Muslim majority has angered Iran, the main Shi'ite power in the Gulf, and it has warned the crisis could lead to wider conflict.
Iran has already canceled a Nowruz celebration that it planned to host at the United Nations in New York "to sympathize with Muslims in some of the regional countries who have been killed by dictator rulers or foreign forces," its U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaei, was quoted as saying by Iran's English language Press TV.
Ahmad Tavakoli, a senior member of parliament, asked for the Iranian celebration to be canceled for the same reason.
"I ask Ahmadinejad to prevent the celebration for the sake of preserving his status and honor," the student news agency ISNA quoted him as saying.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)