TEHRAN – Iranians rang in the year 1398 of the Persian calendar on Thursday with their belts tightened as United States sanctions bite into the traditionally gluttonous Nowruz festivities.
The country’s leaders, who find themselves increasingly isolated by Washington’s hawkish punitive financial measures, used the occasion to call upon the populations to plow on and become less dependent on the West.
Sanctions levied by President Donald Trump’s administration in August and again in November have fueled inflation and unemployment in Iran and have considerably devalued the local currency, the rial, drastically reducing Iranian purchasing power.
All this combined has affected celebrations for the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz.
The arrival of the New Year, a tradition that dates back 3,000 years and coincides with the vernal equinox, is the largest secular celebrations in the country, which is ruled by a theocratic regime that bases its policies on the teachings of Shia Islam, the dominant branch of the religion in Iran.
Many Iranians use Nowruz as a chance to gather friends and family, or travel.
However, the economic crisis has forced revelers to alter their consumption patterns this year. According to a survey by Iranian research platform ISPA, more than 80 percent of respondents said they had made fewer traditional purchases such as nuts, clothing and furniture than in previous years.
Shopping and travel, particularly trips abroad, were reduced.
Despite this, few households would have gone without the traditional haft-sin table arrangements of seven items beginning with “s” in the Persian alphabet, which includes apples, garlic, and sweet pudding as symbols of health, love and prosperity for the coming year.
The country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, referenced those symbolic items in a public address in which he chose the slogan “the year of impulse production,” for the year 1398, which began on March 21 in the Gregorian calendar.
Khamenei said a boost in domestic production would help guarantee Iran’s economic independence from “foreign countries and enemies,” as well as reduce unemployment and strengthen the rial, which has lost 60 percent against the dollar in less than a year.
“As well as destroying the enemy we must create modes of deterrence,” he said in a televised speech from the northeastern city of Mashad, adding that Iran must demonstrate that it will not be bowed by economic threats.
For Khamenei, who has been in power since the death of his predecessor Ruhollah Khomenei, this act of defiance also involved the military and he urged the country to continue its ballistic missiles program despite warnings from the West.
“The West has shown us that we cannot wait for their help, we can expect them to betray us and stab us in the back, but never be honest,” he continued.
He denounced what he saw as a lack of action taken by European nations when faced with the US’s decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran last year.
Leaving behind fellow signatories Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, Trump wriggled free from the historic deal – signed by his predecessor Barrack Obama – in order to slap fresh sanctions on the Iran regime.
Khamenei said the European Union’s creation of a financial channel into Iran, which is limited to medicine and food trade, was insufficient.
He also took aim at Iran’s government, which is headed by President Hassan Rouhani, who sits underneath the supreme leader in the Iranian political hierarchy.
He specifically lumped some of the blame for the economic slowdown on government deficiencies. Rouhani responded by defending his government’s efforts and promising a prosperous 1398.
Nowroz was incorporated on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
It is celebrated in Iran as well as by Iranic people across the region from Kurdish areas of Turkey, Syria and Iraq to Central Asia.