TEHRAN, Mar 15 (Reuters) Iranian youths fired crackers and flirted in a night of rowdy street celebrations to mark a pre-Islamic fire festival, which this year passed off largely free of the usual clashes between police and revellers.
In past years, Iran's Islamic government has sought to stop youths lighting bonfires and fireworks for the ancient Zoroastrian feast of Chaharshanbe Souri, the last Tuesday night before Iranian New Year on March 21.
This time, authorities allocated specific areas in Tehran to ensure the fireworks passed off more safely and, in many areas across the country, police stood by watching exuberant youths instead of trying to disperse the crowds.
''(Last year) they closed the street and shot teargas into the crowd,'' said 18-year-old Omid, who last night was mingling with a group of teenagers of both sexes.
In Tehran's Taleghani park, a girl slipped a small fire cracker under the feet of a police officer, who simply laughed at the prank.
Families had also gathered in the park, some bringing picnics to watch the pyrotechnics.
''The police want to take part in the people's festival and prevent accidents at the same time,'' police spokesman Mehdi Ahmadi said ahead of yesterday's celebrations.
The Islamic Republic has an awkward relationship with its ancient Zoroastrian religion, whose festivals are widely observed by Muslim Iranians.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government has usually tried to crack down on pagan partying, prompting clashes between police and youths testing the boundaries of Iran's social restrictions.
''NOT OPPOSED TO HAPPINESS'' But analysts say since the election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, hardliners who opposed the liberal policies of former President Mohammad Khatami may have less need to flex their muscles.
Others say the authorities do not want to alienate the people during Tehran's stand-off with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
''The situation dictates that the conservatives should not irritate the people while they face the nuclear dispute,'' said Ebrahim Yazdi, the leader of the Freedom Movement, a banned liberal party. ''They seem to have understood that their pressurising methods are pointless in social fields.'' The government launched a campaign to prevent the usual injuries and television and newspapers showed grim pictures of people injured in previous years.
''Tehran prosecutor's office does not oppose the happiness but ... it will confront those who intend to abuse the excitement and the traditions of the people,'' read a statement from the prosecutor general.
State media today said five people had been killed and more than 300 injured in revelling across the country, a marked improvement on many previous years.
A few youths said some of the fun had been taken out of the festival now that the authorities were more accepting.
''It is not much fun if there is no trouble doing it,'' said Avesta, 19, throwing a cracker into a crowd of shrieking teenage girls. ''This is not so bad though. We mingle with the girls and shoot fireworks and crackers,'' he added.
REUTERS SHR RN1926