- 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 Pahlavi 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. They have contributed to and benefited from diversification of Iran’s economy.
- There is no such thing as a single “bazaari mentality,” since bazaars reflect and respond to the political and economic developments of contemporary Iran.
- Bazaaris have gradually lost influence in recent years due to commercial restructuring in retail and wholesale chains as well as changing consumption patterns.
- Iran’s Taskforce to Combat the Smuggling of Goods and Foreign Currency estimated the amount of goods smuggled into the country, often to avoid state tariffs on imports, at over $20 billion USD a year (around 5 percent of GDP in 2014). The Ministry of Trade listed the top goods smuggled into the country as gold, clothing, home appliances, cellphones, computers, cosmetics, and cigarettes.
- Tensions between the bazaar-founded Motalafeh coalition and the Ahmadinejad government were strong. The coalition did not back a candidate in the 2013 presidential election.
- Resalat 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 well-organized oppositional groups 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, who passed away in 2013,was 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. A wide range of top officials attended his funeral, including President Hassan Rouhani, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, Judiciary Chief Sadegh Amoli Larijani and Assembly of Experts Chairman Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani. Still an important voice in conservative politics today, his brother Asadollah is director of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce and the Iran-Russia 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.
- Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Mines, Industries, and Agriculture includes former bazaar merchants and representatives of the commercial sector. A previous head, Mohammad Nahavandian, became the chief of staff of President Hassan Rouhani. The Chamber represents industry and manufacturing as well, which has led to conflicts over state tariffs and investment between the import-dependent bazaars and domestic producers.
- Deeper government encroachment or further economic deterioration could lead protest within the bazaar once again.
- Yet the bazaar is unlikely to be a potent force in politics, due to multiple cleavages in bazaar networks and dependence on the state for livelihoods. These divisions are likely to widen even if sanctions are lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
- Merchants have to compete with the finance and real estate sectors in a larger way than before.
- Privatization of state-owned companies in Iran has been transferred mostly to state-linked organizations, pension funds, and notable elites in an opaque manner. As an institution, the bazaaris have been largely excluded from this process, while individuals may be getting involved through other channels.
Photo credits: Tehran bazaar by Maral Noori; Isfahan Royal Mosque by Patrickringgenberg (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Imam Khomeini via Instagram; Tiraje Mall in Tehran by Mehrad Afkham via Panoramio [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]; Tehran Bazaar by Babak Farrokhi via Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0)
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