- Iranian bazaars, especially Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, have played central roles in the economic and political history of the country. “Bazaari” is a term applied to Iran’s heterogeneous commercial class located in historical urban centers.
- Bazaaris have often allied with other social groups, including the clergy, in anti-government protests when their grievances have overlapped.
- Under the monarchy, the bazaar prospered as an institution because of state neglect. But under the Islamic Republic, individual bazaaris were given key positions of power.
- Bazaaris have adapted to the new constraints that a state-dominated economy have created and the opportunities that a global economy has provided.
- There is no such thing as a single “bazaari mentality,” since bazaars reflect and respond to the political and economic developments of contemporary Iran.
- The director of the National Union of Clothing estimated in 2009 that over 70 percent of the foreign clothing for sale in Iran was illegally smuggled into the country, mostly to avoid a 100 percent tariff by the state.
- Tensions between the bazaar-founded Motalafeh coalition and the Ahmadinejad government are strong. In 2005, one member described Ahmadinejad as a “political midget,” which he said did not refer to the president’s height.
- Resalaat is a conservative newspaper associated with the Motalefeh faction. It frequently features opinion pieces on the Iranian economy arguing for more laissez-faire policies that would remove state tariffs and regulations on trade, and benefit the bazaar.
- Bazaari merchants and their employees are now eligible to enroll in the Social Security Organization’s self-employed pension program, one of the most generous pensions in the world for retirees.
- Islamic Coalition Association (Jamiyat-e Motalefeh-e Islami or ICA) is a pro-Khomeini opposition group that originated in the bazaar in the early 1960s. It had to compete with other more popular political elements in the bazaar, including the Liberation Movement of Iran associated with Mehdi Bazargan. After 1979, ICA members were placed in high government posts and took staunchly conservative positions in factional battles.
- Habibollah Asgarowladi is from a bazaar merchant family. He was a founding member of the ICA, served as minister of commerce (1981 to 1983) and was the supreme leader’s representative in the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. He helped other ICA members get top positions in state-created Centers for Procurement and Distribution of Goods during the Iran-Iraq War. He was removed from his ministerial post after allegations of nepotism. Still an important voice in conservative politics today, his brother Asadollah is director of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce.
- Mohsen Rafiqdoust joined the ICA as a teenager while working in the vegetable bazaar. He was nicknamed the “Imam’s driver” because he picked up Khomeini from the airport in Tehran upon his arrival from exile in February 1979. He later became the Revolutionary Guards minister and then the head of the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, a large state-funded charity, in the early 1990s. He faced widespread charges of embezzlement and mismanagement. Reportedly one of the richest men in Iran, he is now active in the private sector.
- Society of the Islamic Associations of Tehran’s Guilds and Bazaar was established by Mohammad Beheshti in late 1980 to serve as a vehicle for uniting the Islamic Associations, which helped distribute goods during 1979’s revolutionary turmoil. It later acted as a monitoring organization for anti-regime bazaari activity and profiteering. Its head until 2001, Sa’id Amani, was a founder of the ICA. Amani’s nephew, Asadollah Badamchian, was also a founder of the ICA and today is a conservative member of parliament.
- Deeper government encroachment or further economic deterioration could lead the bazaaris to protest again.
- Yet the bazaar is unlikely to be a potent force in undermining the regime, due to multiple cleavages in bazaar networks and dependence on the state for livelihoods.
- Privatization of state-owned companies in Iran has been transferred mostly to state-linked organizations, pension funds, and notable elites in an opaque manner. Bazaaris with clout will likely take part in this transfer of state assets.
- The bazaar as an institution will depend less on territorial location and more on connections to other centers of economic and political power.
Kevan Harris, who frequently travels to Iran, is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He recently traveled throughout Iran for a year doing research. He writes a weblog called “The Thirsty Fish."
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