Back to the Future: Bazaar Strikes, Three Decades after the Revolution


Gauging from the events in Iran’s bazaars, October 2008 had an uncanny resemblance to October 1978.  During the Islamic revolution, bazaaris, responding to the ancien régime’s misconceived scheme to address rampant inflation by identifying and prosecuting alleged profiteers, had organized nationwide closures.  Three decades later, bazaaris in Isfahan and subsequently in Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Tehran challenged the government’s attempt to impose a value-added tax (VAT) by closing their shops and offices.  After several days of strikes and vocal criticism by industrialists and traders alike, the government suspended the new tax.  This about-face was reminiscent of the old order.  The government sent security forces into the bazaars as the state-run Kayhan daily described the strike as “an anti-national movement” and branded the bazaari protesters as “wealthy leech-like people” and “smugglers.”  Although the more recent round of bazaar closures lasted just a few days and was not connected with activism in other social sectors, one is nonetheless tempted to assume that not much has changed in the bazaar or in its relationship with the state.

Despite the change in regime from one that was unabashedly hostile to the bazaar and its “traditional” ways to a post-revolutionary regime that the bazaaris helped bring to power, the bazaaris have continued to resort to public dissent to express their antipathy towards the political establishment and protect their economic interests.  As in the 1970s, it was economic apprehension, rather than religious passion, that moved bazaaris to political action.

This apparent continuity in state-bazaar dynamics stems from a number of factors.  Notwithstanding the rhetoric about safeguarding Islamic values, the Islamic regime has been as interested in transforming and developing the Iranian economy as its predecessor, especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War.  Supporters of the short-lived VAT, for instance, justified it as a modern and progressive system used in Europe.  On the other hand, the conflict over the imposition of a new tax system that will require greater transparency on the part of businesses, not only threatened the bottom line of merchants, but also evoked a central and long-standing dilemma for all Iranians — can the state be trusted?  At the core, bazaaris are concerned about what the state may do with greater access to their business records as well as revenue accruing to the treasury.  Like previous unaccountable regimes that have ruled Iran, the Islamic Republic has not been transparent, efficacious, or just in its spending practices.  The mistrust of the Iranian state is endemic, but the specifics of Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency have exacerbated it.  The new tax was imposed allegedly with little communication with the business community.  In the same week that the strikes spread from Isfahan’s gold and jewelry bazaar to other cities, a prominent merchant and long-standing member of the Chamber of Commerce described Ahmadinejad’s economic policies as a complete failure and his bellicose foreign policy as resulting in the “self-sanctioning” of Iran’s economy.1

However, state-bazaar relations and the bazaar itself have not remained the same over the last three decades.  In fact, the events of October 2008 were exceptional.  In the decades prior to the revolution, the bazaar was politically potent, and not merely because it enjoyed economic resources and was centrally located in Iran’s urban morphology.  What made bazaars act as if they were a unitary and solidaristic entity were arbitration mechanisms, promissory notes, multilateral credit systems, informal religious circles, and expansive kinship webs.  These practices blurred and combined economic, social, and cultural registers by forging dense, long-term, and multifaceted social relationships within the bazaar community that bridged and compensated for the social stratification, political diversity, and economic specialization and rivalries inherent among bazaaris.  For this reason, with and without the support of the clergy, students, and intelligentsia, bazaaris throughout the 20th century have been able to confront tyrannical rule and protect their “collective interests,” defined and framed in different ways over time.

Yet, “religious shopkeepers” and “traditional merchants” were not supposed to go on strike against the Islamic Republic as they did against the Western-oriented monarchy.  Under the current regime, the Islamic associations in the bazaars and the bazaaris’ long-standing ties with the clergy (and Khomeinist tendency in particular) are assumed to preclude the need to take to the streets and clash with security forces to change state policy.

This view of a bazaari-regime alliance captures the historical and sociological reality of kinship, economic, and social affinities between some members of the bazaar and the clergy.  It also reminds us that some of the earliest non-clerical supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini were religiously oriented political activists who were merchants or came from merchant and petty-trading families, who have in several cases parlayed their long-standing relationship with and loyalty to Khomeini and his former students into political capital and positions in ministries, foundations, and other state and parastatal organs.

However, the bazaaris were not uniform or consistent supporters of Khomeinism.  In fact, immediately after the revolution an important segment of the bazaar clearly favored Mehdi Bazargan’s more liberal and lay brand of political Islam.  The relative quiet in the bazaars in the 1980s had more to do with the strong-handed tactics of the ascendant Khomeinists and the Iran-Iraq War than with consent and approval of the consolidation of the Islamic Republic.  The eight-year war was critical for it both promoted the rhetoric and actual spirit of national unity at the expense of political diversity, and because war mobilization created a war economy under the auspices of the state ministries that systematically stripped the bazaaris of their historic role in international and local commerce.  With the end of the war and the death of Khomeini, though the smoldering political and social discord came to the fore, the levers of the economy remained in the firm grasp of the state and its clientistic web.  Bazaaris were left with two second-rate options: They could act as dependent agents of large quasi-state conglomerates with oligopolistic privileges, or they could reconfigure their activities to tap into new networks, in particular the cluster of free trade zones in the southern Persian Gulf and Dubai.  In this growing regional economy, the old bazaari elite were often rendered junior partners to purposefully transnational, polyglot, and stealth circuits of trade.  This new economy rewarded agility, adaptability, transience and multi-functionality, rather than the traits historically lauded in the bazaar — rootedness, multi-generational reputation, conviviality, and specialized expertise.

Iran’s large urban consumerist society and the structure of the macro-economy have ensured that commerce remains lucrative, and many bazaaris continue to be wealthy in both relative and absolute terms.  However, the transformations directly and indirectly resulting from state policies and the bazaaris‘ attempt to negotiate them have rendered the bazaar a very different social constellation than it was during 1977-1979.  The political-economic and social transformations subsequent to the revolution rendered the bazaar collectively fragile and the sorts of events Iranians witnessed in October 2008 rare and surprising. It is no coincidence that the leaders of the recent strike were jewelers and that carpet merchants were prominently involved; due to the very nature of the commodities they trade, these are sectors that have been better able to maintain the close-knit relations essential for making the bazaar more cohesive and capable of engaging in collective action.

Anniversaries of the revolution are moments in which the Islamic Republic, its detractors, and many ordinary Iranians are encouraged to draw direct comparisons between 1978-9 and the current period.  We are invited to deduce that today’s Iran is a direct outcome of the events, struggles, and emotions that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new order.  Yet, these linear narratives of contemporary Iran that set forth from 1979 are too easy.  Social change tends to be more like a kaleidoscope where transformations interact and refract into unintended and unpredictable constellations, rather than an arrow that sets out from the bow of a clear-sighted archer.  As the plight of the bazaaris suggests, Iran 30 years after the revolution is a society produced by policymakers and ordinary Iranians, but made under circumstances not entirely foreseen let alone of their own choosing.  More than simply being empirically shoddy, over-emphasizing the revolution ironically destines bazaaris, and all Iranians, to blindly reenact history, rather than participate in its making, as was the case in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

1  “I am an Emperor: Interview with Asadollah ‘Askarowladi,” Jam-e Jam, 16 Mehr, 1387 (October 7, 2008).

Arang Keshavarzian, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, is the author of Bazaar and State in Iran: the Politics of the Tehran Marketplace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).  “Back to the Future: Bazaar Strikes, Three Decades after the Revolution” was first published as a chapter in The Iranian Revolution at 30 (The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.