By Ivan Sascha Sheehan
THE HILL, March 12, 2018-- Once you pay attention to the situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran for a while, it is difficult not to develop a fascination with the country’s culture, as well as its politics. The history of the region is rich and varied, and yet the clerical regime is intent on shutting out everything that predates the arrival of Islam or exists outside of the mullahs’ extremely narrow worldview.
The people of Iran, however, appreciate their rich history and embrace their diversity. Cultural celebrations are, therefore, frequently the subject of clashes between the government and its people. The regime’s backlash against these celebrations even rivals its backlash against explicitly political demonstrations. And sometimes the two areas of public interest converge.
This Tuesday marks Chaharshanbe Suri, the Persian Festival of Fire, which takes place just before the Iranian New Year celebration of Nowruz, which translates as “new day.” It involves massive public gatherings in which, among other things, celebrants jump over small fires as a symbol of purification. Year after year, the regime tries to prevent the festival’s gatherings because of the holiday’s pre-Islamic roots — but also to deny free assembly to Iranian citizens.
Naturally, the regime’s fear of public gatherings is even more intense in the run-up to this year’s Nowruz celebrations because it comes approximately two months after the end of a massive uprising that encompassed every major city and town in Iran. The first demonstrations associated with that uprising began in Mashhad on Dec. 28, 2017, and focused on the worsening economic conditions for ordinary Iranians. But, as they spread, the demonstrations took on a sharply political tone with participants risking the possibility of arrest and even capital punishment by denouncing the supreme leader and calling for an end to the theocratic regime.
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), a prominent dissident group, recently reported about Tehran’s preemptive efforts to obstruct Chaharshanbe Suri by dispatching civilian militias under the command of the Revolutionary Guard to every major municipality in the country. The information exposes the regime’s deep-seated fears in the wake of the nationwide revolt that came as a surprise to many. The rebellion was suppressed only after some 50 protesters were killed and more than 8,000 arrested.
The PMOI is the largest group within the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an inclusive and pluralistic parliament-in-exile. Tehran pays more attention to the movement than all other opposition groups combined. The group has been blamed publicly by the regime for serving as the voice of the people in demonstrations that have consumed the country since December.
As Iranians prepare to celebrate Nowruz, U.S. officials can expect that the regime’s brutal crackdown on its citizens will continue. At the beginning of March, reports emerged of another activist being tortured to death while in police custody. It was at least the 14th such case since the uprising began. There is good reason to fear that more suppression will follow Chaharshanbe Suri. But there is also reason to believe that the stepped-up repression will not prevent Iranians from gathering, particularly in light of mobilization by the PMOI.
Although the forthcoming control exercised by Tehran may be greater than in years past, the regime was going to try to prevent gatherings on Chaharshanbe Suri anyway. And the people were going to defy those efforts no matter what. There was never any doubt that the public and the government were going to clash over the celebration. The only uncertainties that remain involve the extent and severity of the clashes and how the international community reacts to events as they unfold.
The lingering effects of the January uprising, along with the organizational efforts of the PMOI, may give Chaharshanbe Suri more political significance this year and it may bring more people into the streets. If this happens, the clerical regime will make every effort to stifle discontent. The response from foreign powers may be a determining factor in whether Tehran succeeds or fails in preventing a revolution that could spell the end of the religious dictatorship.
The Trump administration did the right thing in December by quickly expressing full support for the Iranian people’s campaign for freedom. It is important that this message be reinforced as the people’s rebellion re-emerges. Beyond this, it is important that the United States and its allies take concrete steps to prevent Tehran from either cutting off the activist community’s means of communication or concealing the regime’s human rights abuses in the midst of its efforts to stamp out dissent.
Every advocate of democracy and human rights throughout the world should keep a close eye on Iran as its people celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri and take their final steps toward Nowruz. With support from the international community, the Iranian people may finally achieve a new system of government that embraces not only democracy but also civil, political, religious and cultural liberty for Iranians of every demographic background.
Professor Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the incoming executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.