Could Iran's New Year Spark New Protests?

Tuesday night is Chaharshanbe Soori in Iran, an ancient fire ceremony that marks the beginning of festivities for the new year. It's usually a chaotic affair with thousands of young people taking to the streets in Tehran and other major cities to light up bonfires and shoot off firecrackers. Some years, the pyrotechnics and smell of gunpowder can make the streets seem like a chaotic war zone. It doesn't take much imagination to see how fire, protesters, and armed security forces could end up as quite a nasty mix. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tried to discourage the street gatherings with a statement that said the ceremony "has no religious basis and is harmful." Sources in Tehran said Tuesday that security forces had already come out into the streets en masse and there have been sporadic clashes.

At the heart of it, the ceremony of Chaharshanbe Soori is about renewal and preparing for the year ahead. And opposition leaders have cleverly used the occasion to rally their supporters beyond Tuesday's protests. At a gathering of reformist politicians Monday, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi called for protesters to reach out to "teachers, workers, and all classes" in a bid to expand the ranks of the movement. He also called for protesters to increase their ties with the clergy and encourage them to come out for demonstrations. Mousavi's statement seems to fall just short of calling on his supporters to participate in a general strike.

For their part, the government has also sent out clear signals of what they plan for the new year: stepping up pressure on the opposition through the judiciary and plainclothes protesters. On Monday, officials announced that six protesters arrested in December will be put to death. Deputy Interior Minister Solat Mortazavi announced that the activities of the leading reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, have been banned. This may seem like only a formality since many of the party's members are already behind bars in Evin prison. But in reality, this move allows the judiciary a lot more leeway to break up gatherings and detain people associated with the party. And when the official pressure isn't enough, it seems that pro-government protesters are allowed to step in with a wink and a nod. The house of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, a senior cleric with solid revolutionary credentials, was attacked Monday by protesters. They smeared paint on the walls of the house and spray-painted graffiti that read KARROUBI IS A DONKEY. Karroubi didn't stay quiet: he issued a statement calling the government "despotic."

The stage hardly seems set for a new beginning. In fact, the lines between the government and the opposition seem to be hardening, potentially heading for a more dramatic showdown in the year ahead. Each year, Supreme Leader Khamenei issues a new year's greeting message with a theme for the coming year. (Last year was the "year of revising consumption patterns," an effort to get citizens to cut back on unnecessary spending.) This time, Mousavi seems to have gotten the jump by telling his supporters that the year ahead is one of "patience and perseverance." It remains to be seen whether the opposition can persevere in the face of a ever-tougher government crackdown.