TEHRAN, Iran — As Iranians celebrated Ashura on Thursday — a significant Shiite holiday that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad — a feeling of apprehension hung in the air.
And it wasn’t because on this day last year thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest election results, sparking a deadly crackdown by authorities.
Instead, this year’s observances took on a sense of trepidation because the Islamic Republic is facing a mounting economic crisis.
On the streets of Tehran, there is increasing sense of isolation from the rest of the world, a result of a series of severe international sanctions that have been levied against the country for its refusal to give up its uranium enrichment program, which Western nations believe is designed to produce nuclear weapons.
Compounding this sense of tension was a pair of suicide attacks at a mosque in the southeastern border city of Chabahar on Wednesday, which killed 39 and injured dozens more. Although the militant Sunni group, Jandallah, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, Iranian security forces wasted little time in blaming the United States and Israel.
Also, in a surprise move on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the country’s foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, while the top diplomat was on an official state visit to Senegal, angering many conservatives who view the move as yet another power grab by the president and his inner circle.
Meanwhile, a strong official push to promote public unity marked this year’s Ashura observances.
In Tehran, residents observed the mourning holidays in much the same ways they have for decades; a stark contrast from one year ago, when violent confrontations broke out between state security forces and protesters, who seized the date as an opportunity to hit the streets en masse in protest of the June 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad. Fifteen people were killed that day, including a nephew of Ahmadinejad’s main rival, Mirhossein Mousavi.
Iranian state television, which broadcast images from the ceremonies, mixed in footage of last year’s unrest — including scenes of burning police vehicles and government offices — using it as evidence of what the state considers ongoing foreign intervention in Iranian internal affairs.
“Last year a group trod on religious values on Ashura and this is why the public conscience suddenly roared and was set into motion,” Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said earlier this week.
The only blood clouding Tehran’s open sewers this year is that of sheep, publicly slaughtered to feed devotees who attend neighborhood centers where the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein is recited, eliciting tears of grief and self flagellation, as though the event just happened.
Beyond sorrow, the major component of these Shiite mourning holidays is a shared communal spirit, and integral to that is the public offering of free food, often sponsored by wealthy merchants.
This year the handouts are in particularly high demand. And Tehran residents appear more willing than ever to wait in long lines for the giveaways as the cost of food continues to rise steadily.
The food most often associated with the holiday is known as ghemeh, a stew of lentils, tomato paste and lamb, although many were disappointed to find very little meat in the Styrofoam boxes they waited so long to receive.
“Look at this,” complained a man who identified himself as Mehdi. “It’s just a couple of bones and gristle on top of rice.”
“I stood in a line for an hour for this,” he added, hurling the box onto the sidewalk.
The cost of meat in Tehran is now more than $20 per kilogram.
Most Iranians put tried to put aside their concerns to focus on the annual tradition.
“Like it or not, this is who we are,” said Nima Mohammadi, 23, who belongs to a group that hands out free food in central Tehran. “We wait all year for these few days. Nothing will change that.”