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IRAN: Assessing the politics behind the recently concluded bazaar strike

July 18, 2010 |  8:19 am

Tehran-bazaar1

A recently concluded strike throughout Iran's main traditional markets, or bazaars, was initially embraced by the opposition movement born out of last year’s allegedly fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But as it became clear the stakes were more about cash than politics, those supporting the self-described Green movement appeared to distance themselves from it. 

Many were downright suspicious of the bazaaris, who contribute relatively little to Iran's tax structure compared with salaried workers at ministries or big state firms. 

"When people's children were being beaten and killed in the street, these ... bazaaris did not support us," said one young Tehran man, referring to the wave of protests and the violent crackdown that followed last year's disputed presidential elections. 

"Now, for their own vested interests, they strike so as not to pay taxes," he said. 

Tehran-bazaar2Still, Iran’s fierce factional politics may have played a role in the economic strife. 

The Islamic Coalition Assn., also known as Motallefeh, headed by the powerful and wealthy conservative power broker Habibollah Asghar-Owladi, appeared to be guiding the striking merchants and offering them political cover. That's vital in a country where teachers, factory workers and bus drivers striking for higher wages are sometimes tossed into jail.

Many were suspicious that the Iranian tax authorities suddenly wanted to hike rates by 70%, compared with the 7% increase last year.

To some jaded Iranians, the whole affair smacked of the type of choreographed theater and grandstanding that characterize both politics and deal-making in Iran. 

Think of a customer loudly threatening to walk out of a store if the merchant doesn't lower the price of a rug while the merchant shrugs that he can't go down one more penny.

In the end, the customer stays in the store, and the merchant lowers the price. 

"I suspect somebody in the tax office wanted to agitate the merchants and tap the tension in favor of one political faction," said one scarf vendor in the bazaar.

He doubted that economic pressures alone could account for the uproar surrounding the tax hike this year. 

"Why this year did they say we had to pay 70% more than last year and then quickly retreat?" he said.

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: Scenes from the Tehran bazaar. Credit: Mehr News Agency

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