Anti-regime protests erupt during Iranian fire festival

Social media footage emerges of scattered rallies and clashes during annual celebration of Chaharshanbe Soori, a rare pre-Islamic festival that is frowned upon by authorities

Clashes at an anti-regime protest during an annual fire festival in Iran, March 14, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Clashes at an anti-regime protest during an annual fire festival in Iran, March 14, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iranians have held scattered anti-government protests during an annual fire festival with ancient roots, according to videos circulating online.

The videos appeared to show protesters in different cities chanting against the country’s ruling clerics and hurling firecrackers at security forces during celebrations of Chaharshanbe Soori, which took place on Tuesday. Hardliners have long condemned the festival, which dates back to 1700 BC, as un-Islamic.

Iran has seen waves of anti-government protests since September, when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being detained by the morality police for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict Islamic dress code. At their height, the protests saw thousands of people across the country calling for the overthrow of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The protests have largely died down over the past few months following a fierce security crackdown. More than 19,700 people were arrested and at least 530 protesters were killed, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has closely monitored the unrest.

Earlier this week, Iran announced that 22,000 people arrested in connection to the protests had been pardoned, without saying how many had been released, indicating the government no longer views the protesters as a threat.

But there are still signs of widespread anger at the theocracy that has ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. At night, chanting can be heard from darkened buildings in some areas of the capital, Tehran.

Authorities have accused the US and other foreign powers of stirring up the protests, without providing evidence. Ali Reza Fakhari, the governor of Tehran province, denied there were any “special security problems” during the fire festival, and there were no reports of arrests.

Iran has heavily restricted media coverage of the protests and arrested dozens of journalists, making it difficult to determine the scope of the demonstrations.

Separately, the state-run IRNA news agency said 26 people were killed and more than 4,000 injured in accidents involving bonfires and fireworks linked to the festival over the past three weeks. Last year, before the latest protests, 19 people were killed and 2,800 injured in the same period.

During the fire festival, a ritual linked to the Zoroastrian religion, people light bonfires, set off fireworks and send wish lanterns floating off into the night sky. Others jump over and around fires, chanting “My yellow is yours, your red is mine,” invoking the replacement of ills with warmth and energy.

It’s one of two holidays with pre-Islamic roots that are still observed each year in the Islamic Republic, the other being a picnic day in early April. Both offer a rare opportunity for Iranians to dance and celebrate in public, something authorities usually frown on.

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