Party or Protest? Fiery Night in Iran

PHOTO Fireworks and music blasted in Iran?s cities on Tuesday night, as people defied orders from the religious establishment to abandon an ancient Persian ritual involving bonfires and amateur fireworks.

The bangs and whistles of fireworks blasted through Iran's capital Tuesday night in defiance of the religious establishment to abandon an ancient Persian ritual involving bonfires and amateur fireworks.

Reformist website Balatarin cited clashes in Tehran, with Basij firing tear gas at the crowds and reports that revelers burned portraits of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other witnesses told ABC News the streets were relatively calm.

"'It's like a big party, with lots of police," said Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist based in Tehran.

"Pretty much every major square had lots of riot police, but they were just standing and watching," Rezaian said.

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Khamenei had denounced the yearly holiday, known as Chahar Shanbeh Suri or "Red Wednesday," saying it creates "harm and corruption." Other clerics also preached against the ritual during Friday prayers, calling it "impious."

Follow ABC News Lara Setrakian's Iran coverage at Twitter.com//LaraABCNews

Iran's revolutionary regime has long tried to suppress pre-Islamic Persian rituals like Red Wednesday, but with little success in dampening their popularity.

"This isn't something that the government can take away from us. We've been doing this for 3,000 years. They should just accept it," said Maryam, 47, a schoolteacher in Tehran who was out for the night.

"It's a good thing. We're free to have fun for one night a year. Let us keep that," said Azadeh, 24.

Opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi had refrained from protests, though as a pre-emptive measure police were stationed across the city and motorcycles were banned from the streets. By night there were some calls of 'Allahu Akbar,' a protest chant that became common in the nights following Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection last June. It was also a chance to vent frustration over Iran's flailing economy as rising consumer prices, unemployment, and a looming cut in food and fuel subsidies threaten to make basic necessities harder to afford.

Festive Chaos

Overall, the mood in the city on Tuesday night was festive, Tehran residents said, with most of the chaos coming from threat of rogue firecrackers.

"'Bonfires, many of them unattended, were blazing throughout the city side streets. People from their windows and rooftops indiscriminately threw firecrackers into crowded streets with no regard for the people and property below," said Rezaian, the journalist.

"It's so dangerous because all the fireworks aren't up to any kind of standards. Every year people die, many get hurt and burned, but still people will come out," said Maryam, the schoolteacher.

Tuesday's fiery night comes four days before the Persian New Year, known as Norouz. Some of the pro-reform dissidents imprisoned after last June's presidential election were granted a temporary leave, in order to celebrate the holiday with their families. The detainees included Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh, a scholar with Columbia University accused of espionage.

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