The media declared that the Iranian opposition had lost steam when demonstrations rivaling those of last summer did not materialize on February 11. The survival of the regime was no longer in doubt. On and around March 16, the pre-Islamic “Festival of Fire” holiday was held, and the Iranian people again challenged the government and the media has missed the story.
The “Festival of Fire” holiday dates from Persia’s Zoroastrian days and includes jumping over bonfires, setting off homemade firecrackers and explosives and dancing to keep away demons. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the celebrations have had more political meaning as a way of defying the theocracy that seeks to eliminate the tradition. This year was no different. The police admit to arresting 50 people, but that is certainly a fraction of the real number.
The extreme measures taken by the regime must be documented in order to appreciate what the Iranians were able to accomplish. The regime warned that anyone involved in disturbances would be harshly punished. Political activists, as usual, were rounded up and arrested. Thousands of security forces were deployed, including agents dressed as civilians to infiltrate any crowds forming. Cameras were set up to identify those involved, and shops in the market were closely watched to make sure explosives were not sold.
According to sources in Iran, the speed of the Internet was dramatically slowed beginning on March 9 to prevent information from leaking out. Political websites and Internet groups were hacked, and messages appearing to come from activists called on readers not to assemble. Tehran University was closed for the entire week, and some areas where people clashed with security forces had cell phone networks shut down. Forces were deployed to gas stations to make sure fuel wasn’t given to any civilians that could then be lit. Posters of Khamenei were removed to prevent them from being ripped apart.
In Babolsar, electricity was shut off after a crowd of over 1,000 gathered in a park and began setting off firecrackers and chanting against Ayatollah Khamenei. One eyewitness said that in Tehran, an eight-year old child was even arrested. On Kaj Boulevard in Tehran, street lamps were smashed so that video of clashes between the security forces and a crowd estimated in one report as above 10,000 could not be clearly taken. Several thugs were injured and the use of homemade explosives enabled the fight to continue for an hour and a half.
Some of the preparations were laughable in their extremity and did nothing but show the fear of the regime. As Michael Ledeen has reported, the regime is trying to wage a war on the color green. There is video of green lines on sidewalks in Tehran being painted over.
The stories from inside Iran show that the regime’s tough stance did prevent a massive uprising on the scale of the post-election demonstrations last summer, but the disobedience and bravery of the Iranians shows their passion has not dissipated. Tehran and Mashhad were described as being a “war zone.” Despite the regime’s efforts to confiscate explosives, “the purchasing of combustible materials and explosives has escalated. Streets, sidewalks, Bazaar markets and central regions of the capital are flooded with such materials,” a report sent to me said.
In Tehran, three of the motorcycles belonging to security forces were seized and set on fire. Kaj Square, the reports said, was actually under the control of the demonstrators for an hour and a half. In several areas of Tehran and around the country, security forces were overpowered and fled or stood by idly, allowing the people to control the scene until backup arrived.
In Rasht in northwestern Iran, a government building was set on fire. In Babol, females who tore down a poster of Khamenei were assaulted by security forces, resulting in a clash between them and the demonstrators. Leading up to the “Festival of Fire,” 600 students staged a protest at Babol’s Noshirvani University demanding the release of political prisoners. In western Iran, the people reportedly controlled Khoramabad for 20 minutes and beat three members of the Basiji militia.
The regime’s weakness was apparent according to these reports. A member of the security forces reportedly said that they were ordered to not enter dark, narrow sidestreets where fighting was most likely to occur. They were told to avoid arresting people and “not to aggravate the crowd” for fear of causing a confrontation. One member of the security forces was arrested by his colleagues for refusing to attack those lighting off fireworks. West Azerbaijan Province was described as having its largest celebrations in years, with eggs being thrown at security cars and fires in alleys and streets.
The Iranian people will be grateful for President Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran this year. Unlike last year’s message, he slammed the regime for rejecting the West’s overtures and devoted the majority of his message to praising the struggle of the Iranian people. Last year, their fight was given not a word of encouragement. It is time to match those words of support with concrete action.