Tehran Bazaar Dispute May Herald New Regime Crackdown
By Robert Tait,
If ever an institution typified the blend of social and religious
conservatism wrapped up in Iran's Islamic Revolution, it is the Tehran bazaar --
home to an array of carpet sellers, textile traders, and food merchants
instinctively suspicious of the alien values of Western commerce.
Shoppers at Tehran's Grand Bazaar (file photo by Syma Sayyah)
Yet now this sprawling "city within a city" -- which is also home to several
mosques, in keeping with its close ties to the Islamic clergy -- is in open
revolt against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as he tries to impose swingeing tax
rises to compensate for budget shortfalls.
This week, the bazaar -- situated on the southern tip of Tehran's vast city
center -- forced the government to backtrack on a plan to increase income tax on
traders by 70 percent after many vendors closed their doors, slowing trade to a
crawl and prompting the authorities to dispatch security forces.
After gold and jewelry stores closed on July 6, traders throughout the bustling
market followed suit. A hastily arranged meeting between merchants and Finance
Ministry officials was followed by an announcement that measures to collect the
new tax would be "suspended" until "necessary guidelines are issued." In the
meantime, taxes would remain at their current levels of between 6 and 15 percent
-- thus depriving the government of an estimated $20 billion it hoped to raise
The confrontation has already left a trail of bitterness amid signs that the
bazaaris' reprieve could be short-lived.
Opposition websites have reported that police and intelligence were met with
jeers and chants of "Death to the dictator!" when they tried to force traders to
open their shops.
Rights Activists In Iran News Agency website reported
that the representative of the textile traders organization, whom it identified
only by his surname, Mo'tamedian, was arrested on July 8 when he called for a
According to the opposition website Rah-e
Sabz, bazaaris have announced they will continue their protests
until the government repealed the new tax law altogether. Some reports have
suggested the government has tried to quell the protest with violence, although
details are impossible to confirm. One unverified account said a merchant died
in hospital from injuries sustained in a clash with security forces.
Many Grand Bazaar shops were
shuttered after the July 6 threat emerged of a 70-percent tax hike.
What is certain is that the government is now at loggerheads with an institution
that has long been loyal to the Islamic republic and which played a key role in
toppling the Western-backed Shah when it staged a long shutdown in the lead up
to the revolution in 1978.
Ahamadinejad already backed away from one standoff with bazaaris two years ago,
when he abandoned a plan to impose a 3 percent value-added tax on traders.
But this time the government's retreat may be temporary, with hard-line
supporters calling for a fierce crackdown after identifying the striking traders
with the Green Movement opposition that protested against Ahmadinejad's
reelection last year.
...And 'Settling Scores'?
In an apparent reference to the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
one government supporter wrote to the pro-Ahmadinejad Jahan
News website that "all
these disturbances are the work of the green coup d'etat plotters affiliated
with the mafia godfather."
The accuser then went on to ask: "When will the judicial power close ranks?
Isn't it time to [settle] a score?"
Jamshid Assadi, an Iranian economist with the EC Groupe Business School in Dijon
in France, believes Ahmadinejad may use the dispute as a pretext to hand many of
the bazaar's key economic functions to his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps (IRGC).
"If this dispute with the bazaar continues, I think Ahmadinejad will try to take
it over and hand it to the Pasdaran [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps]," he
said. "[That would involve] taking over many of the activities which are now run
by the bazaaris -- food, importation, current products, current goods,
Such an approach, Assadi says, would be consistent with populist attacks on the
rich carried out by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whom Ahmadinejad is
believed to see as a role model. Ominously, it may also be accompanied with a
further increase in repression that could see the arrests of some of the
bazaar's leading merchants.
The bazaar dispute takes place against a troubled economic backdrop that has
reportedly seen strikes over unpaid wages, including among sugar workers in the
provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan on the Caspian Sea, and an ongoing row between
Ahmadinejad and parliament over the president's plans to end subsidies.
The transfer under Ahmadinejad of vast swaths of Iran's economy into the
Revolutionary Guards' control means that the bazaar -- whose wares range from
chadors to bikinis -- may not be the political force of old.
But following the ongoing rift with former establishment figures like Rafsanjani
Hossein Musavi over
Ahmadineajd's 2009 presidential election, alienating it has huge symbolic
importance and will leave Ahmadinejad politically isolated, Assadi believes.
"It means that sociologically, the institutions you would expect to be
supportive of the government of Ahmadinejad are against it," he said.
"Sociologically there is a big change. Institutions that are supposed to be
supportive of the Islamic republic of Iran, they are more and more against it."
While that may render the government politically weaker, it is also likely to
make it more ruthless, Assadi added.
"The bazaar is symbolically very significant, so Ahmadinejad is highly
isolated," he argued. "Unfortunately one of the outcomes of that isolation is
that, to keep the government in power, the Pasdaran are going to increase
repression and control over the society."
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL,
Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201
Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace
Keshavarzian, New York University
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Bazaar has always been central to the Iranian economy and indeed, to
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and under the subsequent revolutionary regime, which came to power
with a mandate to preserve the bazaar as an 'Islamic' institution.
The outcomes of their respective policies were completely at odds
with their intentions. Despite the Shah's hostile approach, the
bazaar flourished under his rule and maintained its organisational
autonomy to such an extent that it played an integral role in the
Islamic revolution. Conversely, the Islamic Republic implemented
policies that unwittingly transformed the ways in which the bazaar
operated, thus undermining its capacity for political mobilisation.
Arang Keshavarizian's book affords unusual insights into the
politics, economics and society of Iran across four decades.
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