The politicization of Nowruz, Iran’s new year

March 21, 2013

TEHRAN -- For centuries, Nowruz has been the traditional Persian new year, a holiday for family. But, in recent years, it's also become a political opportunity.

On Monday, President Obama released his annual Nowruz video, in which he marked the holiday by speaking directly to Iranian citizens. He discussed his hope for renewed diplomatic and trade ties between the United States and Iran if Iran addresses international concerns about the intentions of its nuclear program. Two days later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, also made Nowruz speeches. Each used the ostensible holiday greeting to talk about the upcoming June election, among other things.

It might seem odd for both Washington and Tehran to use the holiday for political purposes, but there's a certain logic to it. It makes political sense, perhaps, for a U.S. president to jump on a non-Islamic aspect of Iranian culture -- Nowruz predates the state's religion -- as the right moment to send a message to Iranians.

As for Iran's own leadership, both the supreme leader and the president have been putting out political Nowruz addresses for years. The practice of naming years in the address sets a political agenda. Khamenei dubbed this -- 1392 -- the year of "political and economic epic," and past years have been named "domestic production" and "economic jihad." The Islamic Republic and its political institutions are not very old, dating back to only 1979.

Something that's not always evident to outsiders is how much politics is part of life here in Iran. Some, especially Americans, might be under the misperception that Iran doesn't really have politics, that it's all about state mandates. But, in fact, everything here is politicized.

When the national leaders make their annual Nowruz speeches, a huge number of Iranians tune in, regardless of their political tendencies. Whether people are waiting for a sign about the nuclear negotiations or some talk about the election, they're well aware that the positions these two men take could have major implications for their economic well-being, which is still just about every Iranian's top concern at the moment.

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.
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Max Fisher · March 21, 2013