Casual Iran-watchers were captivated last week by the intrigue around erstwhile nuclear spy Shahram Amiri and his successful homecoming. But the Islamic Republic was likely keeping closer tabs on the Tehran bazaar -- where shopkeepers and traders were on strike for more than seven days -- than on Washington's Iranian interest section, where Amiri awaited departure. The bazaar protests had little to do with the nuclear impasse or the Green Movement, but they are a sign of popular economic discontent and a likely harbinger of further turmoil to come.
Iran's traditional covered marketplaces earn their reputation as objects of historic and architectural interest, but they aren't just tourist destinations. They are still-active trading posts where small peddlers hawk their wares, and some of the country's most wealthy import-exporters and wholesalers conduct their business. The immense, covered complex in downtown Tehran, for example, is home to tens of thousands of would-be entrepreneurs. The bazaars are not quite as central to Iranian life as they used to be -- in the past 30 years, many of the most prominent bazaaris have either moved their headquarters to new business centers in Tehran and Dubai, while the Islamic Republic has carved out a privileged position in international and domestic markets for government foundations -- but they are still at the heart of the national economy. The bazaaris are an interest group keenly aware of the leverage they wield, and unafraid to use it.
Last week's protests were spurred by the national government's attempt to increase the merchants' annual income tax by 70 percent. Even though the government quickly adopted a conciliatory tone, the strikes persisted. The announcement last Monday that the government and the Guild Council, the bazaar's official representatives, had negotiated a modest 15 percent tax increase made no difference: The shops remained shuttered, leading to clashes between bazaaris and government security forces. It was only this past weekend that traders agreed to again open their businesses.
The government is right to be concerned. The Iranian capital's marketplace has proven among the most reliable catalysts of political upheaval in the country's long history. Bazaaris have used similar methods of resistance to channel opposition to rulers and show support for larger political movements. Bazaari dissent was instrumental to the successes of Iran's constitutional movement of 1905, the nationalization of the oil industry in the 1950s, and the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979.
With those historic resonances, it's no surprise that the Green Movement and its sympathizers have paid such keen attention to the marketplace rebellion. And the merchants' implicit message of "no taxation without representation" fits broadly with the Greens' liberal defense of civil rights. But expanding the already unwieldy and battered Green Movement tent to include the bazaaris may be a case of wishful thinking. There is little evidence that the bazaaris' actions of the past week were anything more than a defense of their economic interests and profits. A revolutionary coalition is probably not in the making.
But even if the bazaar protests weren't part of a larger political front, they do reflect deep tensions in Iran's political economy that can't and shouldn't be ignored. Negotiations between the guilds and the government over taxes are nothing new, but these debates rarely spill over into the alleyways of the bazaar or lead to physical confrontations with security forces. The fact that in 2010 they have is a symptom of the perilous state of Iran's broader economy and polity.