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Iranian Authorities Clamp Down on Traditional Persian Festival Celebration

Iranian authorities have been scrambling to circumvent possible demonstrations linked to the annual Zoroastrian "fire festival." Government TV has been broadcasting footage of young people burned from mishaps with fire and firecrackers in a bid to discourage participation in the event.

Iranian government TV ridicules the traditional Persian "fire festival" by showing a firecracker blowing up a gold-fish bowl. It also shows footage of young people who have been hurt by fire or firecrackers and interviews with doctors who warn them not to participate in the event.

Government officials, including Tehran's police chief and the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard have also gone on TV urging young people to avoid the annual "fire festival."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even posted a message several days ago on his Web site telling Iranians to avoid what he called "the pagan festival."

This Tehran resident, who asked not to be named, says that the Iranian government is doing everything that it can to prevent people from taking to the streets.

"The regime has tried a lot so that people wouldn't start another uprising," she said. "Its Friday imams say that Feast of Fire is superstitious, [and the government is] mobilizing its forces, collecting trash cans from the streets, threatening people and their parents, and encouraging people to stay home and watch 11 movies that it's going to show consecutively."

She says that friends have told her about skirmishes Tuesday between security forces and young people throwing firecrackers in Azadi and Vali Asr squares and elsewhere. Police, she notes, appear to be nervous and have been stopping and searching passersby.

"Tehran streets all today [have been] flooded with SSF and plain clothes and Basidjis and they stop people who they think might carry explosives with them or they found them suspicious and they searched them. Agents have been pulling the posters of Khamenei so that people wouldn't drag them down and torch them and jump over it," she added..

She insists that despite all the government fervor to prevent young people from demonstrating, many of her friends have been lighting firecrackers and shouting "allahu akbar" from the roofs of their houses to express their discontent. She says that many young people are hoping to turn the fire festival into a "blazing uprising."

Editor Alex Vatanka of Janes' Islamic Affairs Analyst says that he thinks many Iranians must be furious with Ayatollah Khamenei for trying to prohibit the traditional Persian festival.

"To put this in context, this - what Khamenei calls a pagan festival - has existed in Iran for literally thousands of years," Vatanka said. "Not even Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, had the courage to start questioning some of these precious cultural attachments of Iranians."

Vatanka thinks Khamenei could be making a strategic mistake by clamping down on the festival.

"If this is not a misreading and overconfidence on his part, than I don't know what is," Vatanka said. "He's brilliant on a tactical level, but look at the occasions where he mishandles. Why would you, if you're fearful of security threats, of the fact that people on the last Wednesday of [the Persian] year might come out and throw a few slogans at you, there are surely better ways of defusing that than shaking the foundations of Persian civilization."

Khamenei, he stresses, could be leaving himself open to the criticism that he, himself, who claims to descend from the Prophet Mohammed, is not an ethnic Persian, but an Arab, "with an Arab agenda."