Iran's Wall Street: Whom Does the Bazaar Back?

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An Iranian woman shops at a bazaar in Isfahan

Just as Wall Street is the embodiment of America's financial industry, "the bazaar" stands for the mercantile and commercial interests that form a core constituency in Iran. Both are physical and metaphorical locations of power. Indeed, the bazaar, the center of Iranian economic life stretching back centuries, has been key to the country's political history. In January 1984, Ayatullah Khomeini addressed bazaar leaders and, while pressing for their support, flattered their importance by proclaiming, "If the bazaars are not in step with the Islamic Republic, the public will suffer defeat." So which way is the bazaar leaning as the crisis in Iran continues?

In the capital, the main bazaar is located smack in the middle of the city, between the wealthy to the north and the poorer southern neighborhoods — the pivot on which Iranian society revolves. And signs of discontent in the bazaar alleys could be seen months before the election. In October 2008, bazaaris closed down their shops in Tehran, Isfahan and other large cities for several days in objection to a new sales tax that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had implemented. It was the first general bazaar strike since the Islamic revolution, and the President quickly backed down and suspended the tax.

In the past, the sentiments of the bazaar were crucial. The story of the 1979 Islamic revolution cannot be told without recounting the numerous times bazaars in all major cities went on strike to protest the Shah's autocratic rule. The family networks of bazaaris as well as their business networks were so intertwined with the Shi'a clergy that Iran experts spoke of the "bazaar-mosque" alliance as the main reason for the toppling of the Pahlavi monarchy. But is that alliance still holding strong in the wake of the largest protests in Iran since 1979? Could opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi persuade the bazaaris to strike in support of him?

The bazaaris are certainly unhappy with the current climate, which is bad for business. Tourism has almost vanished, with foreigners' visits to the enormous carpet section of the bazaar falling off sharply since June. But Iranians still fill the covered passages of the bazaar to buy everything from designer chadors to Chinese-made rice cookers. One shop owner estimated that about 70% to 80% of the bazaaris — owners, managers and workers — quietly sympathize with Mousavi. The remainder, though, loudly voice their support for Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi's supporters are trying to get the bazaar on his side. One of the marches in the weeks after Iran's June election went from Imam Khomeini Square past Tehran's main bazaar. According to a witness, thousands of bazaaris closed their shops so they could stand outside and watch hundreds of thousands of green-clad protesters silently walk by. In fact, the route had been designed to draw Iran's merchants and workers into the growing opposition coalition to make it seem as if it had the support of Iran's commercial sector.

While Ahmadinejad had his tax run-in with the bazaar, Mousavi does not have a positive record with many bazaaris either. Older bazaaris can still remember Mousavi the firebrand leftist, who as Prime Minister in the 1980s was associated with price controls and food cooperatives during the Iran-Iraq war. But younger managers and workers generally express support for Mousavi, even though, as one pointed out, "Mousavi never visited the bazaar before the election." Bazaaris felt slighted by the snub, and since the bazaar's merchants are still a main conduit to Iran's smaller towns and rural areas, this was undoubtedly communicated outside the bazaar as well.

Some observers, however, believe the power of the bazaaris as a whole has been slipping. As Iran's economy slowly re-entered the global economy over the past 20 years, certain bazaar members made out well as long as they could maintain special relationships with the government, which handed out licenses to import and export goods and gave more favorable exchange rates to certain traders. But ironically, as postrevolutionary Iran's economy diversified, with malls sprouting up in Tehran neighborhoods that catered to the tastes of an expanded middle class, the bazaar may be slowly losing its central place in Iranian social life. Still, as the Iranian factions struggle for power, whoever wins over the bazaar will have a major advantage.