Last week, Tehran's Grand Bazaar was shut, with its example imitated in the capital's other business districts such as Maqsud-Shah, Qaysarieh, Khayyam, Sayyed Vali and Pachenar, among others. At the same time, bazaars in several other cities, notably Isfahan, Mash'had, Bandar Abbas, Kerman and Tabriz also organized token strikes in sympathy with Tehrani merchants.
Shutting the Grand Bazaar is not easy and had not happened since the heady days of 1978-79, when the uprising against the Shah was heading for its peak.
The Grand Bazaar consists of over 40 interlinked passages covering a total distance of 10.6 kilometers. The passages are divided into 20 segments, each specializing in some trade, from food-shops, to goldsmith workshops to carpet show-rooms to whatever a mega-city of almost 15 million inhabitants might need.
However, the Grand Bazaar is not just a mega shopping mall; it is the core of a whole way of life.
It contains six mosques, 30 hotels, more than 20 banks, six libraries, nine religious seminaries, 13 primary and secondary schools, two theaters, and a "House of Force" (zurkhaneh) where actual or putative "tough guys" practice traditional wrestling and body-building.
The Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran. (Image source: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons)
Bazaar merchants also provide a good chunk of the income reaped by the Shi'ite clergy in the form of "khoms" (one-fifth of revenue), "sahm-Imam" (Imam's share), and a whole range of other voluntary donations. Without money from the bazaar and similar institutions in the provinces, the Shi'ite clergy might not have been able to maintain its status through many ups-and-downs in Iran's stormy history.
Traditionally the Grand Bazaar has also played a key role in fostering social cohesion, mostly through associations representing people from Iran's 31 provinces. The largest of these are the Azerbaijani Association, followed by the Association of Isfahanis in the capital.
More than 500 charities depend on support from Grand Bazaar, which is also linked with countless Sufi fraternities. The Qaemiyah Movement, that organizes the birthday of the Hidden Imam on 15 Shaaban on the lunar calendar, has an estimated 1.2 million members in Greater Tehran. The same organization flexes its muscles every year in the mourning months of Muharram and Safar by fielding over 500 mourning processions (known as dasteh sineh-zani) in all parts of Tehran, the sprawling capital which covers an area of 662 square kilometers. Its provincial associations maintain networks all over Iran and, if and when necessary, can bring additional "muscle" to the capital from hundreds of towns and thousands of villages near and far.
More importantly, perhaps, the Grand Bazaar is the source of direct or indirect employment for more than 600,000 people.
The early history of the Grand Bazaar dates back to some 400 years ago in the Safavid Era. But the main structures of the present network were built some 200 years ago under the Qajars. Under Reza Shah the Great, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the Grand Bazaar adopted a critical profile towards the new regime because of its modernization project that included clipping the wings of the clergy and promoting European-style trading companies. Under the last Shah, relations initially improved but only slightly, and from 1978 onwards ended up with open hostility towards the Pahlavi regime. Most Iran experts agree that without strong financial and manpower support from the Grand bazaar, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Communist allies would not have been to seize power without much of a fight.
Since then, the Grand Bazaar's enthusiasm for the Khomeinist regime has cooled somewhat, without turning into open hostility. Thus, the current events must be regarded either as a fleeting aberration or as a serious sign that the Khomeinist regime may be losing one of its major bases of support.
Of course, since nothing in Iran is ever what it seems to be, the protests may well be part of the power struggle within the Khomeinist establishment.
If that is the case, one must assume that the more radical faction, presenting the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their mascot, helped foment the protest as a coup de grâce to President Hassan Rouhani's moribund administration.
To be sure, there are facts that underline such a theory.
Radical members of the Islamic Majlis , among them Ahmad Amir-Abadi, Fatemeh Zolqadr and Ayatollah Mujtaba Zolnur, are openly talking about impeaching Rouhani or forcing him to resign. In fact, 71 radical Majlis members signed a motion yesterday, giving Rouhani 15 days to offer a new policy or face impeachment.
They think that with the so-called "nuclear deal" concocted by the former US President Barack Obama now virtually dead, Rouhani has lost his administrations political "jewel in the crown".
The fact that some top military figures, among them former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Yahya Rahim Safavi and former Baseej (Mobilization) Commander Gen. Ghayb-Parvar have also indirectly criticized Rouhani gives weight to that theory.
Several radical members of the clergy, among them Ayatollah Nuri Hamadani and Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, have come out in support of the bazaaris and emitted dire warnings to Rouhani and his team.
Other analysts, however, believe that the bazaar is reflecting wider concerns within the Iranian society at a time of growing economic hardship and socio-political repression. Similar concerns caused last winter's nationwide uprising that spread to over 1250 cities across the country.
Several facts lend credence to that analysis. To start with, the official media are not branding the current protest as "another Zionist-CIA plot" as they have always done since 1979. Some outlets claim that the protests were fomented by "troublemakers" or "economic saboteurs" but no attempt is made to link them with exiled groups or traditional nationalist or Islamist-Marxist opponents of the regime.
One thing is certain: The Grand Bazaar has well-established and tested mechanisms for popular mobilization and a show of force in the streets. If it is angry, it can show its anger. And when it does, it would be foolish for anyone not to take notice.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.