On Tuesday, March 16, Iran was once again the scene of boisterous anti-regime protests nationwide, this time in celebration of an ancient occasion, Chaharshanbeh Souri (Festival of Fire). Despite a flurry of threats and a hodgepodge of suppressive measures arranged by flustered authorities, Iranians, led by youths, came out in force in defiance of the regime and its Supreme Leader.
Festival of Fire is a ritual leading up to the New Year on the first day of spring on March 21. To celebrate, people light up bonfires on the last Tuesday night of the year and jump over the fires singing a popular verse hoping for the deflection of the "yellowy paleness" of last year's ills and inviting the "red vitality" for the coming year. For most, this year, the paleness represented the brutal ruling regime and the vitality pictured the nine-month-old popular uprising against it.
The powerful symbolism of Festival of Fire was already enough to inject a terrifying chill in Iran's already shivering rulers. Coupled with chants of "death to dictator," it served as a potent reminder that Iranians are as resolute as ever in their arduous quest for democratic change.
Since the start of the massive nationwide protests last June, the trajectory of events has laid bare two main conclusions previously dismissed by those in the West who were under the illusion that they can unclench the mullahs' fists through the offer of incentives and concessions.
First, the regime is bursting with copious terminal tumors and crises, most notably the irremediable fissures within. Second, there is a vast potential permeating Iranian society which is geared towards bringing about fundamental regime change. Taking these realities into account must serve as the hallmarks of any coherent western policy towards Iran.
All in all, this means that the situation cannot be reverted to the old days where the mullahs ruled comfortably with an iron fist. This was evident during the most recent protests. Prior to the Festival of Fire protests, the regime depleted almost all of the fuel of its archaic suppressive and propaganda machinery. The theme of brutality and intimidation characterized most statements emanating from state-run media and officials.
Even the ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, pitched in the last minute by churning out a religious decree against the celebrations, saying that Festival of Fire "has no religious basis and is harmful and must be avoided." Meanwhile, Mir Hossein Moussavi, the increasingly inconsequential leader of the "Green Movement," urged his supporters to refrain from turning Festival of Fire into anti-regime protests.
On top of all this, the regime sentenced six more people detained during December protests to death and carried out widespread arrests. And, on the day of protests, as Newsweek noted, "Security forces [came] out into the streets en masse and there have been sporadic clashes."
None of these measures proved effective, however. Fresh video clips again surfaced on popular websites like YouTube showing Iranian youths chanting "death to dictator," "death to Khamenei" and burning pictures of Khamenei and his predecessor Khomeini over bonfires and amid loud cheers.
In east Tehran's Majidieh district, youths defied the tense suppressive atmosphere and managed to set a State Security Force vehicle on fire. In the capital's Baharestan Park, young Iranians set a building used by the paramilitary Bassij ablaze amidst heavy clashes. In Amir Abad, protestors chanted "henchman Khamenei, the time for your death has arrived." Meanwhile sounds of firecrackers and sonic grenades crackled throughout Tehran and at least 30 other cities much to the chagrin of the bullying security forces.
The New York Times reported, "Many neighborhoods 'rocked' with bonfires and music later in the evening ...The celebrations were scattered around Tehran but took place in almost all of the city's neighborhoods."
Indeed, this was a major victory for the Iranian people seeking to overcome the military-police state's suppressive onslaught. It was also a major defeat for Iran's rulers. And, last but certainly not least, it sent a message to some pundits who had written off the uprising after their anticipated "Day of Final Action" on the February 11 revolution anniversary failed to materialize: the uprising is still alive and well and is here to stay. Those had pundits failed to recognize that the road to democratic change in Iran is much more laborious and requires immense sacrifices.
Interestingly enough, while correctly suggesting that the Green Movement and Moussavi are not serious strategic factors in Iranian politics, some card-carrying apologists of Tehran in Washington, DC, nevertheless drew misleading conclusions about the uprising, which overlook basic yet crucial facts about Iran. They argue, "The future course of Iranian politics will be charted within the parameters of the Islamic Republic, not by efforts to overthrow it."
This mistaken contention is the result of identifying the massive and deep-rooted upheavals in Iran with Moussavi and other likeminded politicians who have gone out of their way to insist that they want to reform the existing regime from within. The reality, however, is that the demands of the nationwide protests were not born in June 2009. Rather, these uprisings are the outburst of more than 30 years of pent-up rage against suppression, corruption, human rights violations and a plethora of social ills. The June 2009 presidential election was simply an opportunity for that pent-up rage to reveal itself.
So, just because the Green Movement appears to be losing steam as a result of poor leadership, it does not mean that the profound grievances and corresponding demands of the Iranian people will simply vanish with it. Tehran apologists cannot use this poor argument to revert attention from the Iranian people back to the decaying confines of the regime.
The Iranian people know that democracy can only be obtained through regime change. This explains why during the Fire Festival they not only mocked the Supreme Leader's religious decree but also ignored calls by Moussavi to refrain from politicizing the event.
Instead, tens of thousands heeded calls by the main organized Iranian opposition in exile, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and came out in protest. In short, the celebrations perfectly capped off an unprecedented Iranian calendar year laden with unrelenting protests. The revolt also revealed the importance of a dedicated organization and strong leadership to guide protestors to their true destination.
Washington should heed the spirit of the Iranian people's Festival of Fire celebrations and once and for all throw the ill policies of the years past, including the terror label against the MEK, into the fire and recognize the vitality of the Iranian people's resolve to bring about democratic regime change. That would be the most pragmatic and sensible way to thwart a nuclear-armed Iran and avoid foreign military action. The choice lies with President Obama.